Are Mismatched Marital Expectations Behind the Gender Gap? : MBA News |

Are Mismatched Marital Expectations Behind the Gender Gap? : MBA News

By Tim Dhoul

Updated November 21, 2014 Updated November 21, 2014

Female Harvard Business School (HBS) alumni across two generations have found that their relationship expectations have often failed to match up with reality when it comes to the importance of their careers and childcare arrangements. The expectations of male graduates, meanwhile, are invariably met and often exceeded.

This gender gap is a principal finding in a new study of 25,000 HBS alumni – both male and female – carried out by a trio of researchers from HBS and the City University of New York’s Hunter College and published in the December issue of the Harvard Business Review.

The study’s analysis, focused on MBAs, concludes with the authors pointing to the importance of a less well-known Sheryl Sandberg slogan – ‘Make your partner a real partner’.

Discrepancies found in HBS alumni expectations over relationship status

Almost all the survey’s respondents, 91%, envisaged having a partner and children at the time of their graduation.

Among Baby Boomers (ages 49–67) and Generation X (ages 32–48) alumni, the survey found a discrepancy between the number of women who expected their partners’ careers to take priority over their own (c.21%) and those who said this became the reality (c.40%). Male HBS alumni, meanwhile, exceeded their expectations here.

“The fact that HBS alumnae are finding themselves in relationships in which their careers are subordinate to their partners’ more often than they anticipated strikes us as meaningful,” say the study’s authors, who assume that these relationships are between members of the opposite sex.

Expectation vs. reality: raising the children of HBS alumni

When it came to childcare arrangements, another gender gap between expectations met and unmet was observed.

At the time of their graduation as HBS alumni, more than 75% of male Boomers and Gen X graduates expected their partners to take the lead on childcare. In this, their expectations were once again exceeded. For female graduates, the two-thirds of respondents who ended up leading on childcare was substantially more than the 50% who had expected this to be the case all along. 

The study’s authors suggest that leading a relationship’s childcare arrangements is simply reinforcing the problems associated with viewing a woman’s career as being of a less equal status.

In their research they also found that 11% of female HBS graduates from the Gen X and Boomers generations were out of the workforce for reasons of childcare. However, many of these same respondents suggested that this was more due to their experiences on returning to the workforce than out of any personal choice – citing issues with being treated as less of a ‘player’ due to family commitments and the need for flexible working hours.

Women were much more likely to take a ‘career break’ of more than six months for childcare reasons (44% of Boomers and 28% of Gen X compared to just 2% of men across both brackets), but the study found no link as to why this statistic might explain alumnae’s lesser representation at a senior management level.

Will Millennials improve the gender gap?

The study also surveyed male and female HBS alumni of the Millennials (ages 26–31) to find that a gender gap between male and female expectations on the above at graduation persists, albeit at a slightly smaller rate. For example, whereas three-quarters of women expect equality over career importance with their partners, this is only true of roughly 50% of male HBS alumni – which the authors suggest may cause problems akin to those felt by their predecessors further into Millennials’ careers.

Another interesting, if unrelated, point found among Millennials is that both sexes were more obsessed with the trappings of job titles and status when ‘defining success’ than their elder peers.      

HBS alumnae can’t get no satisfaction

By looking at graduates across three generations from the same prestigious institution, the study’s authors hoped a level of high potential could be reasonably assumed.

And the career priorities of the HBS alumni at graduation were fundamentally similar. Despite this, in the results came confirmation of there being a notable gender gap in attaining senior management roles and positions with profit-and-loss responsibility.

Perhaps for all of the above reasons, alumnae reported lower career satisfaction levels across all three generations. While 50-60% of male HBS alumni said they were extremely or very satisfied “with their experiences of meaningful work, professional accomplishments, opportunities for career growth, and compatibility of work and personal life,” only 40-50% of alumnae could say the same.

The study, which marks 50 years since Harvard first admitted female students, doesn’t go as far as to say that expectations over the distribution of work and family responsibilities are to blame for a continuing gender gap at the level of senior management and beyond. Instead, it merely wants to help dispel the myth that a career-minded woman’s main obstacle to progression stems from her own choices.

This article was originally published in November 2014 .

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Written by

Tim is a writer with a background in consumer journalism and charity communications. He trained as a journalist in the UK and holds degrees in history (BA) and Latin American studies (MA).