NEW YORK (AP) _ Once upon a time, he climbed the corporate ladder and she worked to help make ends meet. Today, that's more and more a fairy tale.

Working couples, who now make up 45 percent of the labor force, mostly view their careers as equal in importance, and they want the flexibility to support each other's career needs, according to a study released today.

Many of the nation's 28 million dual earners see a second family income as giving them the freedom to take career risks _ including quitting their jobs if they aren't satisfied, the yearlong study by the Catalyst group found.

``A significant portion of the labor force finds economic independence, security and satisfaction in the family's second income,'' said Sheila Wellington, president of Catalyst, which works to help women in business advance.

The study, based on a survey of 800 dual-earners and interviews with 25 couples, helps dispel the myth that men are the breadwinners in most families. Married women who work full-time earn an average of 41 percent of family income, according to the Department of Labor.

Yet despite the sheer number of dual-earners _ and their increasing appearance in management ranks _ ``employers know very little about how these couples function and what they want in the workplace,'' said the Catalyst report, ``Two Careers, One Marriage: Making it Work in the Workplace.''

In 53 percent of working couples surveyed, one partner's career is considered as important as the other's.

Even ``primary'' earners bend to the other's career. More than 35 percent of primary earners said they had made themselves available for emergency child care; 13 percent had turned down a job relocation.

Given dual-earners' needs to accommodate to each other, flexible work was crucial to them.

Almost two-thirds of men and three-quarters of women want the option to control the pace of their advancement, slowing it when family responsibilities called, without harming their careers, the study found.

Further, if given a promotion, nearly half of respondents would prefer more time off instead of getting more money.

Surprisingly, men were also eager for more flexible hours, Catalyst said. Almost one in four men have worked a flexible schedule, and nearly half would look for formal flexible schedules in a new employer.

Nor are dual-earners prepared to silently grumble if they aren't satisfied. They expect help from employers, the study indicated, and are prepared to quit if they don't get it.

A Catalyst survey in 1981 found that dual-earners mostly said they should manage their homes better to improve work and family balance. In 1997, the couples said employers should address their needs by offering flexibility or a variety of paths to advancement.

Further, two-thirds of both men and women surveyed said that as a result of having a wage-earning spouse, they're more likely to leave their jobs if they're not happy.