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Erin Anderssen

Erin Anderssen

The real reason women fall behind in their careers: their husbands, Harvard study finds Add to ...

The debate about why more women aren’t filling seats in the corporate boardroom has produced a spreadsheet of explanations. Women need to bridge the “confidence gap” in the workplace. They need more mentors. They pay a mommy penalty. And they still do most of the child-care and housework.

That last point – the role of expectations within a marriage and their potential career-downsizing effects – doesn’t get as much attention, even though what happens at home is impossible to separate from work. But a new study of Harvard MBA graduates suggests that Sheryl Sandberg’s most important advice for women comes halfway through her bestselling book, Lean In: “Make your partner a real partner.”

That is, don’t marry a man who thinks his career comes first.

For the study, published in Harvard Business review, the authors surveyed about 6,000 men and women between the ages of 26 and 67, most of them MBAs, the group that is the focus of findings. They found that while both genders tended to have the same career and family aspirations, how that actually played out in real life was very different.

For those graduates working full-time, men were more likely to be senior managers. This wasn’t because their female peers were “opting out” – only 11 per cent had left the workforce to care full-time for kids. In fact, 74 per cent of the Generation X women – the group most likely to have young children – were working full-time. And many of the stay-at-home group – especially those in the Baby Boomer group – reported to have taken up this role reluctantly after being sidelined into unfulfilling work, or, as one woman in her late-50s told the research team, after being “mommy-tracked” when she returned from maternity leave.

When it came to how women over the age of 30 felt about their careers, they were significantly less likely than men to feel “extremely” or “very satisfied” with their career achievements.

Why didn’t aspirations match reality for women?

Not because of the kids, the study suggests, even though 77 per cent of graduates (73 per cent of men and 85 per cent of women) said they believed that “prioritizing family over work” was the top barrier preventing women from advancing higher in the corporate ranks. Yet the survey showed that senior executives in the survey – both men and women – were more likely to have made career choices to accommodate family than their lower-ranking staff.

What appears to make the difference for women was the expectations of the men they married. The vast majority of women in the survey had assumed, when they graduated, that their careers would have equal priority within their marriage. More than half of the Gen X and Baby Boomer men, on other hand, assumed their own careers came first.

When it came to who would be the primary caregiver, the same pattern existed: More than half of men expected the role would go to their spouse. “These expectations,” as the authors write, “were met and exceeded.” (More than half of women also assumed they’d be the primary caregiver, but even more actually ended up in that role.)

In other words, the authors write, “Women were likely to have egalitarian expectations – and to see their expectations dashed,” while their husbands’ career trajectories continued to rise. The results were that women were less satisfied with their careers than men, except for the group that described their marriages as egalitarian.

As co-author and Harvard Business School professor Robin Ely explains, while both genders rank family over work, “what that has meant, and seems still to mean, is that men, in the breadwinner role, are supposed to ratchet up at work, while women, in the caregiver role, are supposed to ratchet back.”

And, unfortunately, those beliefs aren’t changing as fast as women might hope. Millennial men (those between the ages of 26 and 31) were indeed more egalitarian when it came to child care, and were slightly less likely to think their careers should come first. But not by much. Half of the men in this age group still expected their careers to take top priority, and two-thirds still expected their partner to handle most of the child care – beliefs that clashed with those of their female peers. Still, 42 per cent of women in the youngest age group also figured that diaper-changing would be primarily their gig.

Perhaps those assumptions will shift as this group of Millennials go on to raise babies, though the authors don’t express optimism on this count.

But nonetheless, the findings suggest that expectations at home have prevented – and may yet prevent – many women from achieving their career aspirations. Closing the gap between expectations and reality will require a change in work, to make it easier for couples to juggle successful careers with family, and to ensure talented women aren’t stepped over because of career breaks or temporary part-time stints, even unconsciously.

“If you’re in a position of power, push for change that will allow employees to live a saner life – one that enables them to combine both work and love,” says Ely, who co-wrote the study with Pamela Stone, a sociologist at Hunter College in New York, and Colleen Ammerman, assistant director of the Gender Initiative at Harvard Business School.

Ely also suggests that young couples thinking of marriage should have a specific conversation about what they expect out of work and home life. In the modern household, the trickiest balancing act may be ambition.

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