It’s March 29th, 2012: I’m Starbucks-charged and desperately clamoring to finish my senior thesis within the next 48 hours so I can graduate on time. A fateful email pops into my Inbox from Harvard Business School, which I had applied to in January. Looking away, I debate whether to open it lest my thesis go entirely unfinished. I remember the time that one exam didn’t go so well, the part of the application interview when I stuttered. There’s always next year. My finger shakily prods the mouse. Click.
Congratulations! I call my Mom, who immigrated from the Philippines after college seeking a better life for her family, and had faced ostensible maternity discrimination while interviewing when pregnant. I call my Grandma, who single-handedly raised my dad and his sisters while putting herself through law school to then dedicate much of her career to fighting for the civil rights of women. Today is her birthday. To me, an opportunity like this is a testament to the tremendous sacrifice of the incredible women who have invested in and driven me to achieve. It is an opportunity to continue their hard work.
This past weekend, I opened a different Harvard-related email summarizing a new study across thousands of Harvard Business School (HBS) alumni from three generations. Some highlights:
Harvard MBAs value fulfilling professional and personal lives—yet their ability to realize them has played out very differently according to gender.
The vast majority of women anticipated that their careers would rank equally with their partners’. Many of them were disappointed.
It simply isn’t true that a large proportion of HBS alumnae have “opted out” to care for children.
We considered whether graduates had gone part-time or taken a career break to care for children, and how often. None of these factors explained the gender gap in senior management.
One can probably imagine how any young woman might feel reading this news: wow – if these high-achieving women are still unable to realize the same professional success as their male counterparts, how can I? If childcare doesn’t account for the workplace gender gap, what does? What’s going on?? Having kept a particularly avid eye on the Lean-In and Having-it-All discussion (Anne-Marie Slaughter being the thesis advisor who indeed made sure I graduated on time), I was particularly curious to read on, and I was surprised by what I learned.
An achievement gap highlighted between men and women – even among the ultra-lean-inners – wasn’t terribly shocking, though the 10–16% difference falls short of uplifting. What saddened me was the difference in satisfaction levels between male and female graduates: at worst, half of male Harvard MBAs report being professionally satisfied across several different measures – yet this is what female Harvard MBAs achieve at best. To me, the indicators underlying “satisfaction” in the survey balancing professional and personal life collectively stand as a reasonable proxy for happiness. In other words, these expectations conditioned to real-life context that titles alone may not reflect, expectations of well-educated individuals, remain discrepant 50 years after women began attending HBS.
Even more, the study showed our conventional ‘wisdom’ around what accounts for this gap is wrong: while 85% of female HBS grads believe putting family before work is their top career obstacle, “here’s the kicker: it simply isn’t true.” In reality, few female HBS grads are caring for children full-time, and efforts by both men and women to accommodate for personal and family life (i.e. working less and lateral career moves) don’t account for the gap between men and women in top management positions.
In short: A lack of leaning in is not the problem. Women are leaning in.
What the study did reveal, though, is that the the other players in professional success game need to lean in way, way more:
Men: Across the board, the women studied expected their careers to take equal priority alongside their partners’ careers. Yet most of Gen X and Baby Boomer men expected their careers to take precedence over their partners’. Half of Millennial men – the men of my generation – expressed the same expectation. This reflects half of my future classmates’ expectations, and the majority of my male colleagues’ expectations. How can I expect that these expectations won’t impact me?
Companies: These expectations combined with our flawed conventional wisdom inform our workplace settings. The study found that HBS alumni assumed that “high-potential women are ‘riskier’ hires than their male peers because they are apt to discard their careers after parenthood…yet another bias women confront.” If our employers aren’t acting to correct these biases, we are literally building our workforce based on flawed assumptions.
Society: To my male counterparts’ credit, they weren’t born with the expectations that their careers should take precedence over their partners’ careers. Many men in the study expressed feeling harshly judged not only by their employers, but also culture at large for wanting to prioritize time with family at the expense of time spent at work. In order for men to lean in, and for companies to lean in, our whole society needs to lean in too.
While we know women can’t pave the path to equality alone, we need to get our facts straight about what’s behind the achievement gap to propel the right course of action. The study begins to outline a few recommendations, for instance, that companies need to look out for prevailing yet tacit perceptions that constrain women’s opportunities, and beyond the view that flexible working hours and “family-friendly” policies are enough. The recent discussion around egg-freezing, which I’ve also briefly opined on in Forbes, as one potential example. I hope employers beyond the private sector also take these recommendations seriously, and I hope that at an individual level, we can all be mindful about the perceptions that inform our own behaviors. Professor Slaughter has spoken at length about best practice models and is working on a book whose 2015 launch I’m looking forward to. For my generation, we need to continue to challenge the expectations of our peers, employers, and policymakers. The fight is long from over.
At first blush, the statistics from this study may not appear to illustrate the sunniest forecast. The silver lining? We have rich evidence to spur the brutally honest conversations needed to make change. Our history does not have to reflect our future.