Lessons on Life and Leadership

Speaker’s Corner From The Practice May/June 2015
Robin Ely, Harvard Business School

As part of Harvard Business School’s commemoration of 50 years since the admission of women into our MBA program, we recently undertook a study of Harvard Business School (HBS) alumni.

The survey spanned the Baby Boom, X, and Y generations. Not too surprisingly, the women and men who have graduated from HBS—all smart, well-educated, and highly ambitious—don’t differ much in terms of what they value at the start of their careers: most said job titles and professional achievements were important to them.

Today, however, broader concerns are much more on the minds of Gen Xers and Baby Boomers. Overall, when we asked respondents to rate the importance of nine career and life dimensions, nearly 100 percent of our alumni—across the two generations and regardless of gender—said that “quality of personal and family relationships” was “very” or “extremely” important. Balancing life and work and community service and helping others were also important priorities. With regard to career importance, men and women were again in agreement. Both said “work that is meaningful and satisfying” and “professional accomplishments” were important to them. The majority valued “opportunities for career growth and development,” with women actually rating this dimension slightly higher.

We take these findings to indicate that our MBAs aimed for and continue to value fulfilling professional and personal lives. But here’s where they differ: in their ability to realize the lives to which they aspired. Among those who are employed full-time, we see patterns not dissimilar to trends in the broader workforce: men are more likely to have direct reports, to hold profit and loss responsibility, and to be in senior management positions.

Whereas about 50 to 60 percent of men across the three generations told us they were “extremely satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their experiences of meaningful work, professional accomplishments, career growth, and compatibility of work with personal life, only 40 to 50 percent of women were similarly satisfied on these dimensions.

Another disconnect between men and women appeared in their responses to questions about what they believe are the factors that explain women’s stalled advancement into leadership positions. Across the board (and controlling for other demographic factors such as race, age, income, and partnership, parental, and current work status), women were more likely than men to cite structural barriers—features of the work environment that can directly contribute to gender inequality in the workplace. For example, whereas about three-quarters of women agree that lack of “senior women role models,” “inhospitable organizational culture,” “exclusion from informal networks,” “lack of a supportive work environment,” and “lack of influential mentors and sponsors” inhibit women’s advancement, only about half of men agreed.

Perceptions that family is the problem appear to be at odds with reality, suggesting that some fundamental assumptions about family and work need to be rethought.

The top-cited explanation for women’s stalled career advancement, however, is the same for women and men: “prioritizing family over work.” Eighty-three percent of women and 74 percent of men believe this factor hinders women’s career progress.

Interestingly, our findings did not square with these beliefs: we found that the kinds of decisions that might be characterized as “prioritizing family over work”—such as taking a leave, making a lateral move, or choosing a more flexible job—do not explain women’s broad underrepresentation in senior management. Perceptions that family is the problem appear to be at odds with reality, suggesting that some fundamental assumptions about family and work need to be rethought.

Learning from business

In our survey, we were mainly interested in understanding what our graduates are doing and how the women, in particular, are faring, especially in light of the fact that women are underrepresented in leadership positions. The lessons I draw come largely from their response to questions about how they navigated the complexities of career and life and the extent to which they are satisfied with the decisions they’ve made—and suggest what women can do to thrive, contribute maximally, and lead whole, fulfilled, and sustainable lives.

One of the most important lessons from these findings is that, to realize these aspirations, women must resist internalizing cultural messages about what it means to be a woman and, in particular, what it means to be a mother. These messages do not serve us well, and in many ways, they don’t ultimately serve men well either. We see this perhaps most vividly in people’s responses to questions about what they expected when they launched their post-HBS careers about the kinds of lives they would lead with a spouse or partner and what they have actually experienced in the years since. Ultimately, we uncovered some disconnects that may illuminate why women and men are not equally fulfilled.

If women are primarily responsible for child care, their careers are more likely to become secondary in importance to their partners’, perhaps helping to explain their lesser career satisfaction.

Across the board—in career, child care, and housework—women were far more likely than their male counterparts to start out with egalitarian expectations—and in each of these realms, to see their expectations dashed. Although the majority of Gen X and Baby Boom women reported that their careers were at least as important as their partners’, the remainder found their careers took lower priority. That figure—40 percent—is almost double the proportion who left HBS expecting a traditional arrangement. Right there, we see many women ending up on a more traditional path than they had anticipated.

One reason may have to do with their expectations about child care: whereas more than three-quarters expected their careers to be at least as important as their partners’, only about half of women anticipated sharing child care equally. These findings gave us pause. If women are primarily responsible for child care, their careers are more likely to become secondary in importance to their partners’, perhaps helping to explain their lesser career satisfaction. (Ultimately, more traditional child care arrangements did win out, with healthy majorities of women—and even healthier majorities of men—in partnerships in which women took responsibility for most of the child care in their families.)

These findings are a wake-up call for women and men alike to carefully consider—and to routinely revisit and reconsider—the social contract with their spouse or partner. These contracts are strongly culturally prescribed in messages about who is best equipped to do what when it comes to career and family, and then organizationally reinforced in norms and practices that give men a market advantage. The path of least resistance is a conventional arrangement in which men are breadwinners and women are caretakers, a role increasingly defined by an ideology of intensive mothering.

To resist conforming to these cultural messages and automatically prioritizing the career with the best economic prospects—or worse, yielding decision-making power to the partner with the greatest economic means (typically the man)—takes creativity, fortitude, and a commitment to having a different life from the one the culture, and the organizations embedded within that culture, have been organized to support. And such efforts will inevitably mean making some compromises along the way.

What I think people too often lose sight of, however, is that even with a traditional arrangement, they are also making compromises. They may simply not be as aware of them. When women compromise on career, they may find themselves professionally disappointed; often, however, such moves also mean that men are compromising on family. I am routinely struck by the number of men who, much later in their careers, experience deep regrets over partners and connections to children they’ve lost because they relinquished the family realm to women. I think if couples were more aware of these consequences, they might make different decisions.

A second, related lesson is for those holding positions of power: push for change that will allow all of your employees to reach their leadership potential while also living a sane life—one that lets them combine both work and love. At the end of the day, isn’t that what we all—men and women—want?

Intersectionality of race and gender

Not surprisingly, women’s work status, career attainment, and attitudes vary by race. (In our survey, we considered anyone selecting a category other than simply “white” to be a person of color; 1 percent of respondents declined to indicate their race or ethnicity.) We were particularly interested in the impact of race on women’s careers (controlling for such factors as age, industry, and number of children), as well as their views on the role race and gender played in their careers. In addition, knowing that gender norms around work and family in the wider culture, at least in the West, are largely and historically shaped by the experiences of whites, we looked at how alumnae (and alumni) of different racial and ethnic groups answered our questions about the distribution of career prioritization, child care, and household labor (controlling for factors like age and income). For these analyses, we focused on alumnae in Generation X and the Baby Boom generations, who are well established in their careers, likely to be working, and likely to have children under 18 at home.

We found race differences in women’s views about barriers to women’s advancement. For instance, women of color are more likely than white women to agree that structural barriers are a hindrance to women’s advancement. In addition, black alumni—both men and women—are less likely than whites to believe that family-related constraints hold women back. This difference may be explained by the fact that black women (along with South Asian women) are the least likely to be out of the workforce full-time caring for children (only 4 percent compared to 11 percent of women overall) and, among mothers, are most likely to be employed full-time. Black alumni (both men and women) are also least likely to end up with a partner whose career took precedence over theirs and to be in partnerships in which women took on most of the child care. That being said, the majority of women across racial groups performed most of the child care (with the exception of Asian women, at 50 percent), but South Asian and white women did so in larger proportions than either black or Asian women. These findings suggest that alumnae of color tend to follow less conventional career and life paths than their white counterparts.

In contrast to full-time employed men—where taking race into account revealed a complex picture of the distribution of formal leadership positions (for instance, controlling for relevant factors like age and industry, black men are less likely than white men to hold line positions and to have direct reports, but they are equally likely to hold top management positions)—we found almost no racial differences in these outcomes among full-time employed women. Whites, blacks, Asians (including South Asians), and Latinas are equally likely to hold line positions, have direct reports, and be in top management. Similarly, among women in top management positions, women of different racial groups are equally likely to be on a corporate board.

Looking within racial groups, however, we see some different patterns by gender. We found that white men are more likely to be in top management and to have direct reports than white women, and that Asian and South Asian men are both more likely than their female counterparts to have direct reports. Meanwhile, among black alumni, similar proportions of men and women are in top management and have direct reports.

We also asked alumni for their subjective assessments of how race and gender have influenced their careers and found some interesting patterns by race and gender. Approximately a third of white men believe that they have experienced some advantage owing to their race, while a similar proportion of men of color reported some disadvantage, suggesting some symmetry in men’s views about the impact of race on their careers. We found no such symmetry among women, however: whereas about a third of women of color reported race as having been a disadvantage, a much smaller proportion of white women (14 percent) reported experiencing some racial advantage.

A different, but equally interesting, pattern emerged regarding alumni perceptions of the impact of gender on their careers. Perceptions were fairly symmetrical among whites, with about half of white women reporting that gender had negatively affected their careers and just under half of white men reporting a gender advantage. The pattern was more skewed among people of color: whereas half of women of color reported a gender disadvantage, only about a third of men of color reported a gender advantage. We can see from these findings that gender trumps race for women of color—more reported disadvantages from gender than from race (50 percent vs. 32 percent). Gender also trumps race for white men, who were more likely to experience their gender as a source of advantage than their race (45 percent vs. 36 percent).

Second-generation gender bias

Prompted by Title VII, organizations’ widespread adoption of policies prohibiting blatant sex discrimination—or what is now referred to as “first-generation” gender bias—has opened many doors to women, but such policies have failed to close the gender gap at more senior levels. Impediments to women’s advancement are now more complex and elusive than deliberate forms of sex discrimination. Organizational research on the causes of women’s persistent underrepresentation in leadership positions has thus shifted away from a focus on actors’ intentional efforts to exclude women to consideration of so-called second generation forms of gender bias—the powerful yet often invisible barriers to women’s advancement that arise from cultural beliefs about gender, as well as workplace structures, practices, and patterns of interaction that inadvertently favor men. For example, organizational hierarchies in which men predominate, along with practices that equate leadership with behaviors believed to be more common or appropriate in men, powerfully if unwittingly communicate that women are ill-suited for leadership roles; people’s tendency to gravitate to those who are like them on salient dimensions such as gender leads powerful men to sponsor and advocate for other men when leadership opportunities arise. Such biases accumulate and in the aggregate can hinder women’s advancement.

It’s important for women in or aspiring to leadership roles to understand second generation forms of gender bias because they can interfere in their ability to see themselves—and be seen by others—as a leader. If constructing and internalizing a leader identity is central to the process of becoming a leader, as recent research would suggest, then these subtle yet pervasive forms of gender bias may impede women’s progress by obscuring women’s leadership potential, limiting developmental opportunities, and obstructing the identity work necessary to take up leadership roles. The result is self-sealing: women’s underrepresentation in leader positions validates entrenched systems and beliefs that prompt and support men’s bids for leadership, which in turn maintains the status quo.

Robin Ely is the Diane Doerge Wilson Professor of Business Administration and Senior Associate Dean for Culture and Community at Harvard Business School.


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