Women are not equally represented at the top of corporate America because of the basic facts of motherhood: Even the most ambitious women scale back at work to spend more time on child care. At least, that is the conventional wisdom.
But it is not necessarily true for many women, according to a new study of Harvard Business School alumni. Instead, it found, women in business overwhelmingly want high-achieving careers even after they start families. The problem is mismatched expectations between what they hope to achieve in their careers and family lives and what actually happens, both at work and at home.
Men generally expect that their careers will take precedence over their spouses’ careers and that their spouses will handle more of the child care, the study found — and for the most part, men’s expectations are exceeded. Women, meanwhile, expect that their careers will be as important as their spouses’ and that they will share child care equally — but, in general, neither happens. This pattern appears to be nearly as strong among Harvard graduates still in their 20s as it is for earlier generations.
So even though career-oriented women don’t see their roles as different from men’s, other factors — like public policy, workplace norms and men’s expectations — are stuck in a previous era, when the lives of women and men looked very different.
“Most people think the reason for women’s stalled advancement is they prioritize family over work and ratchet back hours,” said Robin Ely, a professor and senior associate dean for culture and community at Harvard Business School, who worked on the study. “But when we looked at those things statistically, nothing explained the gender gap in membership in top management teams.”
The findings come from the first installment of data in a study by Harvard Business School that will track its alumni over time. They are a rarefied group, and their experiencesare significant because many of them inhabit the top tiers of corporate America.
Nearly 7,000 alumni answered survey questions about career and life goals, and researchers weighted their answers to reflect their representation in the overall population. Male and female graduates had indistinguishable goals; they said they wanted meaningful, satisfying work and opportunities for career growth, as well as fulfilling personal lives.
Yet among those working full time, men were significantly more likely than women to have direct profit-and-loss and personnel management responsibility. Fifty-seven percent of men were in senior management positions, compared with 41 percent of women, and fewer women than men said they were satisfied with their careers.
The data show that their diverging paths are explained in part by discordant expectations in marriages. (The researchers didn’t have data on sexual orientation and assumed opposite-sex partnerships.)
About 60 percent of male graduates who were 32 to 67 years old expected that their careers would take priority over their wives’, and nearly three-quarters of the men said that turned out to be true. About 80 percent expected their spouses to do most of the child care, and that happened for 86 percent of them.
Among women in that age group, however, only 17 to 25 percent expected their husbands’ careers to take precedence, but they did so 40 percent of the time. Half of the women expected to handle a majority of child care, but nearly three-quarters said they ended up doing so.
Graduates ages 26 to 31 appeared to be on track to end up in similar disagreement, the study said. Only one-quarter of the women said they expected their partners’ careers to be more important than theirs, yet half the men said their careers would be more important. Forty-two percent of women expected to handle a majority of the child care, yet two-thirds of men expected that their wives would.
The imbalance between expectations and reality — even among top-level workers — is consistent with other research.The highest-earning female executives with small children spend 25 hours on child care a week, on average, while male executives spend 10, according to a study by the economists Stefania Albanesi, now with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and Claudia Olivetti of Boston University.
A vast majority of the Harvard businesswomen said they were not voluntarily leaning out of their careers to care for children, the criticism levied by Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook executive who is a fellow alumna and author of “Lean In.”
Only 11 percent of the women left the work force to care for children. When the study controlled for family-friendly career moves, like declining a promotion, they found that none explained women’s underrepresentation in senior management. “In fact, many senior managers had made such moves. “A lot of people will say companies are going to favor people who work harder,” Ms. Ely said. “But people targeted as high potential are given more slack and allowed more flexibility because companies want to keep them.”
The Harvard study found that among those women who left the work force to care for children, few did so by choice. Most said they were pushed out by employers whostigmatized mothers. Jobs for people with business degrees are some of the most inflexible, according to a study of University of Chicago Booth School of Business graduates by the economists Marianne Bertrand of the University of Chicago, and Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, both of Harvard.
The findings of the Harvard study rang true to Christina LaMontagne, 33, an executive at NerdWallet, a personal finance start-up in San Francisco, who graduated five years ago. “That’s what I perceived from my male colleagues at H.B.S.,” she said. “Men still expect to have the dominant career, women increasingly expect to have a dominant career and there’s a bit of a gulf there that isn’t reconciling.”
Susan Tynan, 38, who graduated 11 years ago, said she was disappointed by the results of the study because her career and home life had matched her expectations. She is a mother of two and the founder and chief executive of Framebridge, an online framing company based in Lanham, Md.
She says it helps that she and her husband, who works inprivate equity, “are on the same page.” She said that she was upfront about her career goals, and that she and her husband “actively manage” the balancing of their jobs and child care. “I met my spouse at Harvard Business School, so he knew what he was getting into,” she said.
Not all business-school marriages are as equitable. The Booth study found that female graduates who had children and high-earning husbands worked fewer hours and were less likely to work at all than those with lower-earning spouses.
The economists said that was not only because their husbands made enough money to support the family, but also because families required parental time at home. And when someone needs to cut back at work, it tends to be the woman.