Yet if they're thinking about their own careers, women — and men — might want to focus more on something else. A new paper published recently in the journal Psychological Science found a link between an individual's career improvement and the conscientiousness of his or her spouse.
The research examined the careers and personalities of more than 4,500 married people, using a common personality test known as the Big Five. The test measures people on five different traits: extraversion (how outgoing and sociable a person is), agreeableness (how honest and sympathetic someone is, versus suspicious and unfriendly), conscientiousness (how well someone can plan and be productive, rather than be disorganized and impulsive), neuroticism (how anxiety-prone someone is) and openness (how naturally curious and open to change a person is).
The researchers found that only one of the five traits — conscientiousness — could be linked to a partner's career success, as measured by job satisfaction, income and promotions. "Even though your spouse doesn’t come to work with you day in and day out, their personality contributes to your job success," says Joshua Jackson, an assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
Jackson and his colleague, Brittany Solomon, used a study of Australian married couples to do their research. It was one of the few that provided a large enough sample to look at the personalities and career success of both partners in a marriage. They first looked at how different personality traits affected an individual's own career, finding that those with higher levels of extraversion, agreeableness and conscientiousness were more likely to have higher levels of future job satisfaction. Meanwhile, higher conscientiousness was also tied to better salaries, and greater extraversion was linked with more promotions on the job.
On the negative side, individuals who were particularly agreeable often had lower income and fewer job promotions. And unsurprisingly, those who scored high on the neuroticism traits were also less satisfied with their jobs.
Yet when it came to the effect of a spouse's personality traits on a person's career, only high scores on conscientiousness had any impact, whether positive or negative. Jackson suggests two main reasons for this: One, he says, is that people often emulate their spouses' behavior, meaning a husband's or wife's industriousness and organizational skills might rub off on the other.
The second reason is that when a person's spouse is organized, efficient and hard working, they're probably tackling the bulk of the household chores, freeing their husband or wife up to focus more on his or her job. "You're not as stressed about certain chores or duties that need to be done while you're at work," Jackson says.
That, after all, is why Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg devoted a whole chapter of her book Lean In to the importance of women choosing a spouse who will be a real partner at home, helping with chores around the house and taking on more of the responsibilities of life outside of work. This is particularly important for women, given that gender expectations often continue to leave them with the bigger share of household work and childcare.
An interesting thing about Jackson's finding, however, is that there were no gender differences between the spousal personality traits that helped a woman's career and the ones that helped a man's. In both cases, having a conscientious partner was the only trait that had any measurable correlation. "What allows someone to lean in is a conscientious partner," he says. "It's something both sexes should think about in their careers."