I had a long-ish post I was going to run about Erica Dhawan’s recent study of Harvard and MIT MBA candidates. Dhawan interviewed these young men and women about their plans to negotiate work and life, and produced a report (which you can download here) showing that, in general, Gen Y men weren’t a terribly evolved lot. While the Gen Y women had come up with all sorts of strategies for future work-life integration, such as working for a company with a reputation for flexibility, or living near extended family, “none of the men assumed their partner would have a heavy workload or mentioned the possibility for their partner to be the breadwinner in the family. Overall male subjects remained vague about how they will try to adjust and become prepared; most described structures where wives were working part time or at home, but mostly at home.” The general gist was that while male MBAs had thought about the possibility of their wives working, the average future master of the universe thought that her working would not require anything of him.
This is always a sore spot for me. My worst fights with my husband tend to center on any evidence that he might entertain (even in the slightest!) this belief — that our childcare hours should match my work hours, for instance, but don’t have anything to do with his work schedule.
But as I was writing the blog post, dutifully reporting numbers (like 40% of men and 0% of women thought they’d primarily depend upon their partner to deal with things when work and life collided), I then had a thought: Why do all these numbers end in zero?
As Dhawan notes in a post at HBR, that’s because she interviewed 20 people. She interviewed them at length, but 20 people amounts to 10 men and 10 women. So when I was pondering the ramifications of 10 percent of women talking about hiring a nanny, that means that one person mentioned it. I thought it was interesting that 10 percent of men said they would instantly stay home with a sick 1-year-old who couldn’t go to daycare, but again, that 10 percent figure means that’s one guy.
So, what to make of this? I like numbers, but it’s important to take numbers in context. It’s dangerous to read much into small sample sizes, and even more meaningless to quote specific numbers from such a survey. Dhawan mentions this over at HBR; her intent is to produce a qualitative look at how MBA candidates compare with broad impressions we have of Gen Y as great work-life balance warriors. My mistake was to seize on the numbers because, well, I like numbers.
What is more interesting is the broader point (which is what I was going to argue my way in to in my earlier blog post). The reason I get miffed about “can’t have it all” manifestos is that young women absorb such messages that are broadcast specifically at them (and not their male colleagues) over and over again. These women are smart. They’re problem solvers! They want careers and they want families, and being empathetic sorts, they probably will never tell a partner “you can’t have a career,” and so they’ve brainstormed all kinds of strategies to make it work. Men have not. But when these type A men and type A women marry each other, the party who has a great list of babysitters she’s compiled and who has a spreadsheet on their availability, and who has negotiated the ability to work from home so she can do that when a kid gets sick…is going to be the one doing just that. Someone who hasn’t done any of the strategizing and can — with a poker face — schedule a meeting at 7:15 when the nanny doesn’t come until 8, and never mention it to anyone ahead of time, and then when questioned say “your company is more flexible than mine,” is going to wind up getting away with it.
Strategizing can be dangerous. If you’re going to strategize, make sure your partner will strategize with you. This is, I grant you, unromantic to do on early dates, but will lead to a much healthier relationship (and actual work-life balance!) later on.