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How Equal Are 'Copreneur' Marriages Really?

Married couples that start a business together are more likely to have a female partner who takes on traditional gender roles according to surprising research.

Imagine a successful entrepreneurial couple who jointly found a business. How do you imagine the gender roles usually get handled?

As being a founder is pretty far from the traditional female roles of wife and helpmate, you'd probably guess that most women in "copreneur" relationships are on a more or at least equal footing than many other dual-career marriages. These "corpreneur" women are in the thick of their businesses, so surely they must generally be equal partners at home and at the office, right?

Despite this instinct, research actually says otherwise, according to a recent lengthy article in Knowledge@Wharton on married couples who found companies together. Amid first person accounts of cofounding a business and tips on making it work from experts, the articles reports some surprising research findings:

[Successful husband and wife business partnerships] tend to be ultra traditional, according to Kathy Marshack, a business psychologist who counsels many husband and wife management teams. She conducted research in the early 1990s involving 30 married business partners, and found that many of these "copreneur relationships" are less egalitarian than dual-career marriages. For instance, 83% of the copreneurial wives were entirely in charge of general housework, compared with 49% of wives with their own careers. Nearly 65% of copreneur wives handled all the household shopping, versus 36% for the other working wives. At work, copreneurial women typically performed "chorelike" tasks, such as payroll and billing….

"Couples who are in business together tend to have more rigidly defined roles. The husband is the founder, the CEO and the president. She is a support person. Many copreneurial wives will tell you that this is not the way it is," Marshack adds. But she says that many of the portrayals of husband and wife partnerships in the popular press feature remarkably egalitarian couples. These people, she notes, often make incorrect sweeping statements about copreneurial ventures. "But then you dig down and find out what she's getting paid, what her title is, and who people in the company come to for a final decision, and you find that" the partnerships are more complicated and less equal than they might seem.

Some of the research this picture of less than equal partnerships is based on is 20 years old, Marshak concedes, but she adds: "I don't think things have changed that much."

What are we to make of Marshak's observations? Is her sample of 30 partnerships simply skewed by how she found these pairs or who they are, or are media accounts of rosy, modern marital relations among copreneurs the ones that are biased?

What's your experience – are married founders more, less or equally likely to take on traditional gender roles compared to your average professional couple?

Posted: February 4, 2013, 9:01 AM