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HBS research on women's careers

Children aren’t holding back women’s careers. Their husbands are.



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Various studies have confirmed women in top leadership roles and the need for diversity will help a business be truly successful.

Most often, a gender diversity gap in companies is blamed on childcare responsibilities, which might force women out of the workforce for a period of time, but new research has suggested its not children holding women back – it’s their husbands.

Specifically, it’s the conclusion that a husband’s career takes precedence over their wife’s, rather than both careers being ranked equally.

A study of more than 25,000 graduates of Harvard Business School graduates found that women’s expectations for work and family – before and after getting married – are significantly different from reality.

Almost two in every three (61%) men from Generation X expected “traditional” marriages, where their career would take precedence over their wife’s. In reality, this expectation was exceeded, with 70% reporting the husband’s career was deemed more important.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of women across all racial groups and generations, anticipated a marriage in which their careers would rank equally. However, in 40% of cases, the wife’s career took a back-seat.

Women were more likely to have egalitarian expectations – and to see their expectations dashed,” noted the authors.

RELATED READ: Women lose confidence as they reach mid-career

Expectations regarding childcare were even bleaker. A large majority of men expected their partners to take primary responsibility for child care – 78% from Generation X and 84% of Baby Boomers. In comparison, just half of women, across Generation X and Baby Boomers, expected to be the primary caretaker for children.

Again, the expectations of men were exceeded, with 65% and 72% of women across two generations respectively enlisted towards primary childcare responsibility.

These results meant male graduates were much more likely to be in senior management positions and have more responsibility and more direct reports than their female peers. But this wasn’t because women were “opting out”, as believed, to look after children.

In fact, among Gen X and Baby Boomers, just 11% of women left the workforce to be full-time mums, and 74% of Gen Xers, who are currently in the prime of their child-rearing years, work an average of 52 hours a week. 

“It simply isn’t true that a large proportion of HBS alumnae have ‘opted out’ to care for children,” added the researchers.

What men and women respondents did agree on was the definition of success in their early careers, where both sets mentioned job titles, job levels, and professional achievements at roughly the same rates.

Today, however, Generation X and Baby Boomers, view success as “family happiness, relationships, and balancing life and work, along with community service, and helping others.”

Indeed, when we asked respondents to rate the importance of nine career and life dimensions, nearly 100%, regardless of gender, said that ‘quality of personal and family relationships’ was ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ important,” noted the researchers.

Image: Shutterstock 



Gathering 50 top regional chief HR and senior business leaders at a three-day business retreat forum, the exclusive HR Innovation Leaders' Summit will happen from September 9-11. Get involved.

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