What Harvard Business School graduates can teach us about high-achieving women (study)

Goldman Sachs made headlines recently for a two-day technology conference in London it was organising where 76 people were scheduled to speak, but just five of them were women. Of the five women speaking, only three of them were Goldman Sachs employees, one of which was drafted in at short notice to replace a male speaker. The gender disparity was quite shocking, particularly within a business that runs a 10,000 Women program, which invests in and trains female entrepreneurs.

As the late Kenyan Nobel Peace laureate Wangari Maathai put it, “The higher you go, the fewer women there are.” There has been much written on the subject of the gender gap in leadership, and Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, written in 2013, is often regarded as the seminal text. But three academic researchers, who have spent the past 20 years studying professional women, wanted to see if they could delve deeper into the subject.

“The 50th anniversary of the admission of women to Harvard Business School’s (HBS) MBA program inspired us to find out—specifically, to learn what HBS graduates had to say about work and family and how their experiences, attitudes, and decisions might shed light on prevailing controversies,” they explain, within an article written for Harvard Business Review.

The academics surveyed more than 25,000 HBS graduates; with MBAs representing the largest proportion. By looking at men and women who graduated from the same school, who one could assume would all be high-achievers, they had a level playing field for gender comparisons.“HBS graduates are trained to assume leadership positions, so their attitudes and experiences—interesting in their own right—shape the policies, practices, and unwritten rules of their organisations,” the researchers write.

What the survey revealed suggested that conventional wisdom associated with women’s careers, isn’t always the case…

Work-life balance is of equal importance to men and women

Upon graduating from HBS, survey respondents were asked to define ‘success’ and what it meant for them. The resounding majority spoke primarily of career-related factors, with men and women mentioning job titles, job levels, and professional achievements at roughly the same rates. This is understandable given they had recently graduated and were at the beginning of their career.

However, further down the line (some 20 years in some cases), family happiness, relationships, and balancing life and work, along with voluntary work and helping others, are much more on the minds of Generation X (ages 32–48)and Baby Boomers(ages 49–67). For example, nearly 100% of respondents, regardless of gender, said that “quality of personal and family relationships” was “very” or “extremely” important.

Men are more likely to be in senior roles

However, despite the shared professional ambitions of HBS graduates working full-time, men are far more likely to hold positions of responsibility or leadership, as the illustration below highlights.


It therefore comes as little surprise that female graduates are less satisfied with their careers. The findings below show that women’s satisfaction levels run consistently 10-20% below that of their male counterparts.

Only 11% are out of the workforce to care for children full-time

While even today there remains the prevailing belief that women should be the primary caregivers and the perception that the majority pull out of the rat race in order to raise their children, the study goes some way towards disproving this.

Quite surprisingly, just 11% of Gen X and Baby Boom women (who are most likely to have children under 18 living with them today) have left their careers to care full-time for their families.

The researchers write: “Our survey data and other research suggest that when high-achieving, highly educated professional women leave their jobs after becoming mothers, only a small number do so because they prefer to devote themselves exclusively to motherhood; the vast majority leave reluctantly and as a last resort, because they find themselves in unfulfilling roles with dim prospects for advancement.”

The study found that 74% of Gen X female HBS alumnae are working full-time, as are 52% of Baby Boom alumnae. Of the small minority who have left their jobs, rather than it being a matter of choice, they have generally done so as they felt compelled to do so, finding themselves in unchallenging and unsatisfying roles once they started a family, for example.

‘Traditional’ roles win out

While initially, just 25% of Gen X women and 17% of Baby Boomer expected the careers of their male partners would eventually take precedence, disappointingly, the reality was far different with approximately 40% of respondents confirming this was the situation that evolved.

Furthermore, 78% of Gen X men predicted that in the future their partners would take primary responsibility for child care, which 84% of Baby Boomer males agreed with. Those expectations were met and exceeded for both groups, with 86% of respondents confirming that their female partners were the main caregivers. Similarly, while 50% of female graduates initially expected to take primary responsibility for raising children, more than two-thirds of them actually did so.

So despite a top tier education, and high ambitions, traditional gender stereotypes eventually won out. For men, their expectations were far surpassed, while for women, who expected higher levels of equality, the reality has been disappointing.

The researchers conclude that “our findings call for more-comprehensive organisational solutions to address gender disparities in career achievement. Companies need to provide adequate entry points to full-time work for women who have, for instance, recently been on a part-time schedule or taken a career break.”

It’s disappointing that since Sheryl Sandberg’s TED Talk in 2010, ‘Why we have too few women leaders’, very little has changed. The HBS research shows that despite the very best of career intentions, and ambitions to rival that of their male counterparts, women haven’t been offered equal levels of opportunity. Only through a true change in perception and belief, across all generations and gender, can this gender disparity begin to break down. Women aren’t ‘opting-out’ of leadership careers as a matter of choice, and accepting that is critical.

If the subject of gender expectations interests you further, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently delivered a TED Talk on the topic, entitled “We should all be feminists.” She presents some interesting concepts and ideas, and her talk is well worth a watch.

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