In 1996, Joan H. Walker was president of an international public relations firm.
She and her husband, George Walker, owner and president of Richmann & Partners Inc., a marketing consulting firm, both worked in New York. The couple and their two children had always lived in Princeton, N.J.
What’s more, Joan Walker “was happy and wasn’t looking.”
But that summer, Joan Walker was offered the post of senior vice president of Ameritech Corp., the telecommunications giant based in Chicago.
And that’s when the issue of relocation, with her husband as the trailing spouse, arose.
“We talked about it, and he said his business was growing and he was flexible about moving to Chicago,” said Walker. “The children also approved - and on July 30, 1996, I came to Chicago . George stayed behind, sold the house, moved his headquarters here, and I concentrated solely on my job until my family joined me one month later.”
Because of the closeness of her family, Walker says her move was relatively easy. But it’s still rare for a husband to “trail” his wife.
In 1996, 52,700 women were transferred by their employers. Women comprised 17 percent of all corporate transfers, up from 15 percent the previous year, according to the Employee Relocation Council in Washington.
“Though in recent years more women are relocating, the typical transferee still is a married man,” said Anita Brienza, a representative of the council.
Relocation is important in career advancement because it often means a promotion and more money and responsibility. But women may be more conflicted than men about the move.
Walker, however, happily accepted the job. “It was something I really wanted to do,” said Walker, who has a master’s degree in sociology and is highly respected as a communications expert.
But there were problems: Her husband’s business was well-established in New York, and the wishes of Christina, 17, and David, 20, had to be considered.
The key thing, says the executive, is her family understood that the opportunity to work for Ameritech meant “so much” to her.
Other women are not so fortunate. Many turn down transfers because their husbands can’t or don’t want to relocate. And even when the husband agrees to “trail,” he sometimes does so reluctantly and doesn’t want to discuss his so-called “secondary” position.
One professional woman recently moved to Atlanta from Phoenix, where her husband remained with their children until he could find a job in the new city. A few weeks later, her husband said he would not move and could not handle the children in her absence. The woman resigned her job and returned home.
One solution to the “trailing” spouse dilemma is having a commuter marriage. In 1996, Pat Vaal transferred from Chicago to Minneapolis to become director of corporate staffing for Medtronic Inc., a $2.4 billion medical technology firm.
Vaal’s husband, Joseph Vaal, a pediatric psychologist at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill., didn’t relocate with her.
“It’s tough, because we’re a couple that really likes each other,” said Vaal. “We’re inseparable. But we talked about it, realized what this job would mean for my career and, after he looked at some opportunities in Minneapolis, agreed his future and his clients are in Chicago.”
The human resources executive has an apartment in Minneapolis; her husband lives in their suburban Chicago home. “We’re only an hour apart by plane,” said Vaal.
Their solution is a good one, she says, for now. “It (commuting) forces you to make sure you meet your personal values and needs while balancing a stimulating career choice.”
The success of transfers for married women, she concludes, “depends on the strength of your marriage.”