‘Rethinking what you ‘know’ about high-achieving women’: the student perspective

RC Angela Winkle speaks to students about their reaction to a major HBS study that looks at the drivers of female MBA grads’ career satisfaction.

By Angela Winkle, RC

Last week HBS faculty Robin Ely and Colleen Ammerman, along with Pamela Stone (of City University of New York), released a HBR article, ‘Rethink what you ‘know’ about high-achieving women’, that asked ‘can anything more be said?’ on the topic of gender gaps in business and other sectors. And the answer to the authors’ question, it seems, is a resounding ‘yes’, including from current students, who have been debating the article since its release.

Ely, Stone and Ammerman used data collected from 12,000 HBS alumni to debunk common myths about why women’s’ careers stall. In a stroke of HBS planning genius, or in an eerie coincidence (depending on your view of HBS planning conspiracies), the article was released in the same week that RCs tackled the Alex Montana case in Lead. (The Montana case addressed the predicament an alumni found himself in by virtue of continuing to prioritize his own career over his wife’s and over making more time for family). The confluence of the HBR article and the Lead case has sparked a lot of discussion among the student body.

In a sign of how fraught these topics remain, although I interviewed a number of students for this article, less than half were comfortable having their names printed. It is not that they were not open with their views – quite the opposite – but there is a significant concern that a gender related statement could be twisted against them in future. As such no student names have been included in this article.

The headline finding of the research was that children do not hold back women’s careers but rather the expectations of career prioritization in their relationships hold women back. The researchers looked at HBS alumni’s expectations of a traditional or egalitarian partnership when they graduated, versus the reality in the years after graduation. Traditional was defined as the man’s career taking precedence over the woman’s, whilst egalitarian partnerships were those in which men’s and women’s careers are equally valued.

The researchers found that while the vast majority of female HBS alumnae (75-83%) expected egalitarian relationships, they ended up in traditional relationships about 40% of the time, leading to dissatisfaction in their careers. Conversely, the minority of men who were in egalitarian relationships but had expected a traditional relationship were also dissatisfied.

Ultimately the authors found that on the whole men expect their careers to be the priority in their partnership and that their expectations are overwhelmingly realized. About half of the women who had egalitarian career expectations also assumed they would perform most of the child care in their families, suggesting women (whether implicitly or explicitly) expect a higher burden from the outset.

In talking to students about this research, and the conveniently timed Lead case, a number of themes emerged.

First there was a sense of gratitude and relief that ‘finally someone has built the data to debunk the myths.’ There was a general consensus among the students interviewed that the power of the article was to debunk myths with data. The number that stood out most was that 11% of women are opting out for full time child care – some thought this was high, some thought it was low, but all were struck that the vast majority of women are remaining in the workforce and therefore the fact that women’s careers continue to stall must be driven by other factors.

Second, there was pessimism, despair and discomfort, primarily from female students but also from some male students. One student said she hears the platitudes but doubts action will ensue, ‘What I find frustrating about this is that I don’t think many of our peers have internalized what it means for them personally. Men and women talk about equality, and I’m sure they believe the words, but they have not truly considered that that means both partners in a relationship making career sacrifices for children.’ Referring to the Montana case another female student despaired, ‘I am at HBS and I might still be expected to step aside because of my gender, despite my achievements? It’s just not okay.’

Third, there was skepticism. Most of the men interviewed suggested women and men wanted different things and therefore the research is not that useful. While this may be true with a broader population, the authors of the research deliberately focused on MBAs, where men and women do not differ much in terms of what they value and hope for in their lives and careers.

black business woman

The noticeable difference occurs in how men and women’s career paths diverge and how likely men are to achieve their ambitions, versus women. A further argument put forward was that the research implicitly assumes that women are a homogenous group in terms of what they want, and that in some ways it disparages women who choose not to focus on their careers. Again this position addresses considerations for the general public rather than the author’s explicit focus on a narrow subset of high-achieving women, i.e., HBS MBAs, in order to look at a group who do have similarly lofty ambitions, at least at graduation.

Fourth, students pondered the practical implications this has on starting relationships. For one female student the study compares apples with oranges, ‘The study compared HBS men to HBS women, but this as an unfair comparison as these two groups trend in different directions. There are lots of HBS men who are in more traditional relationships. Meanwhile we as women are ‘meant’ to aim for someone who is as smart or smarter than us because otherwise the inferiority complexes kick in – then the question is, who else are we supposed to date?’

Another female perspective was that, ‘it is incumbent on us women who want to buck this trend to be discerning on the choice of partner and this discussion has made me realize that for the average man that is a very progressive idea – it hadn’t struck me as a progressive idea before this discussion.’ Meanwhile a male student recounted his previous discussions with women in which they say they will be less attracted to men who are not the main breadwinner, which, as the student said, ‘makes it hard to know what we are meant to be – supporters or providers?’

Finally, and most importantly, there were ideas to address the problems. Reiterating the article’s findings, many students highlighted the need for better government and organizational policies. As long as flexible work arrangements are considered as for mothers only, a stigma will remain.

Organizations need to support men to take on flexible arrangements, thereby mainstreaming flexibility and removing the stigma. The benefits will be two-fold: women who use flexible arrangements won’t be penalized, and men will be able to be more involved in their families as many desire to be. Students also spoke of the imperative they feel to make the changes required, ‘I love that we are having this conversation now so that we are all becoming more cognisant – we need to keep this in mind when we are responsible for making decisions like that.’ Students also spoke of the need to have (and difficulty having) very open conversations with their future partners as early as possible. It is not realistic to assume no one will have to make sacrifices, but for egalitarian partnerships to be realized there will be some sacrifice on both parts. Until that is internalized and addressed dissatisfaction will persist.