MBAs, numbers, and the danger of strategizing

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.

31 thoughts on “MBAs, numbers, and the danger of strategizing

  1. I could have saved you some time if I’d just called out the small sample size in my links post! I agree that the sample size is too small to support sweeping conclusions, but I found the implications interesting (if a bit depressing). I like your point about not over strategizing. I often find myself telling anxious young women who are asking me very detailed questions about how I make it all work to stop worrying so much ahead of time and to stop looking for the general solution, and just trust their problem solving skills (and those of their partners!) to solve the problems that actually come up as they happen. I do not think this is popular advice, but I keep giving it because I think it is true. I’d never thought about your point about he or she who has done all the planning to compromise is likely to be stuck with all the compromises, but it is an interesting one.

    1. “stop worrying so much ahead of time and to stop looking for the general solution, and just trust their problem solving skills (and those of their partners!) to solve the problems that actually come up as they happen.”

      I’ve tried this advice. I suppose YMMV, but it doesn’t work for my family. It made me a nervous wreck, brought out the worst in my husband, and made our kids anxious and sad. Neither my problem-solving skills in the moment nor those of my partner are trustworthy to this extent.

      1. @Karen – it took me years of reading P-net to figure out that YMMV means ‘your mileage may vary.’ It was like a light bulb went off 🙂

        1. I thought I’d also seen it outside of P-net, but that’s certainly where I’ve seen it most often. I think it’s an especially valuable thought where parenting advice is concerned.

      2. I’m generally giving this advice to a young, unpartnered woman who is very concerned about how she will balance her career with the kids she and a hypothetical partner she hasn’t met yet will eventually have. So I don’t think it is the same situation at all- you already have the kids! My point to the worried young women is that they are wasting energy worrying about problems that may or may not occur for them, and that energy would be better spent just getting really, really good at their chosen field, so that they will have more options when they do have some work-life balance problems to solve. I also tell them to make sure they find a partner who really, truly believes they are equals.

        1. Okay, sure, that makes sense. I think that’s good advice to young, unpartnered women along the lines of “don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched,” or “don’t put the cart before the horse” (or maybe there’s some other farm animal metaphor that’s more apt).

          I’ve always been pretty resistant to broad generalizations about men thinking one way and women thinking another (especially because when it comes down to it, I tend to skew male in the way I think), but I have been noticing more and more over the years that my husband is just really different from me in his approach to problem-solving and in his approach to memory.

          He doesn’t remember where virtually anything goes in the kitchen, even though we’ve lived in this house for almost 10 years. But it’s not just the kitchen. He rarely puts anything away in drawers or cabinets anywhere if he can avoid it because he “doesn’t remember it if he doesn’t see it.” So he also doesn’t know where any tools are, and he doesn’t know where the GPS is if it’s in the charging cabinet–even if I put it there because he asked me to charge the GPS for him when we got home from a trip.

          For him, everything has to be right next to the area where it’s going to be used–laundry detergent right next to the washing machine (not in a cabinet in the laundry room behind the washing machine), box of noodles right next to the stove (not in the pantry), vacuum cleaner in the front entryway (not in a side closet or room), GPS in the car. Then he’ll use it and do whatever chore he is supposed to do. But his “contingency plan,” to the extent he has one, is to pepper me with questions about where stuff is and what is needed. If I don’t have a plan either, we’re completely up the creek. Unfortunately I had to learn that the hard way. And I’m not sure there is any way I could have understood this before we married and had kids, nor do I think there was much I could have done with the information if I’d known about this beforehand.

  2. I think you have to know what your priorities are. I know other commenters have said they would divorce over housework/career conflicts in the past, and they’ve maintained their careers so this is a viable option. I would not (and have not) made that choice. But I think willingness to remain single/divorce to maintain one’s career is what it often (but not always) comes down to.

    1. This is a good point. Once you make the compromise to make your career a secondary priority to your parenting, you also significantly reduce the possibility that divorce is a viable option. This is not necessarily a bad thing. (Caviat: in the absence of any abuse, course.) Holding together a marriage and a family is a noble purpose and more than enough for some women. We each have different motiviations, desires and needs. Its good to advise our girls to consider all these things up front, hope that they know themselves but not to impose any direction based on our own lessons learned. Hindsight is not exactly 20/20 but it sure is a lot clearer than our foresight.

      1. @Judy- I think many young women want more from their marriages than having them last mostly because they are economically dependent. At least I hope so. But yes, when you plan out how you are going to compromise, this can raise the odds that you are the one compromising.

      2. I’m approaching 40. Over half of my friends from high school who have achieved professionally (attorneys, physicians, etc.) are single and childless. I’m from a working class, rural area where women with career aspirations are not sought as spouses, and most female achievers moved to more urban areas where they lack childhood networks. Getting a PhD in a specific field is a geographic constraint to marriage that many men prefer not to accept.

        I think Laura’s larger point is correct- women have to set priorities regarding work and family. But my OB/GYN (who went to med school/residency/fellowship) in NYC and Boston observed that many women are not deliberate about their choices between 20 and 35 and this affects their chances of having families far more than similar choices affect men. To use Laura’s Type A/Type B description, far more women want to marry Type A men than men want to marry Type A women.

  3. Kudos for checking sample size.
    Also, every time I read one of these things, I re-realize that I am the luckiest woman in the world. Yes, not specializing in the planningness means we’re losing gains from specialization, but it also means that when we forget something we *both* forgot it, which is great for not having fights.
    Also a related game theory problem: (s)he who needs the house to be cleanest does the majority of the cleaning.

  4. Laura,
    1) Is it “your company is more flexible than mine” and you make over twice the income that I make?

    2) Or is it “your company is more flexible than mine” and you make less than 1/3 what I make?

    1. @Crete- these things wind up being related. The woman might have traded off income for flexibility, but then she winds up being the only one ever using flexibility. Which then becomes a problem for women and men at the guy’s company who’d like to be more involved with their families too, but people like him are setting the expectations. And, over time, if you’re the one always not doing things outside regularly scheduled hours, and always covering sick days, you wind up earning less.

  5. I’m not sure how I feel about this. If nobody strategizes or makes contingency plans, then what happens when both parents schedule meetings at 7:15, don’t tell anybody about it beforehand, and the nanny shows up at 8? Are the kids just left alone in the house for 45 minutes?

    I think it’s important that kids feel that their world is safe and that they can count on someone to be there for them. If the parents are too busy playing chicken about who is going to get stuck with the compromising at the last minute, I think the children’s sense of safety and trust could suffer.

  6. Here is a thought:
    This article is about how there are many women out tehre who are the wives of veterans with brain injury from being deployed to iraq and other valuable wars executed in the last 10 years by our great leadership …. I think in reading this this really put marriage and these debates into focus for me. If your husband loves you and your kids, doesn’t cheat, doesn’t beat you or drink too much, isn’t mentally ill, didn’t have the poor fortune to work in a military that thinks sending guys into iraq and into traumatic brain injuries over and over again… my own husband’s inability to juggle work and family to my standards or to what I anticipated when I imagined marriage — it is a disappointment, but it is something you can work at and work through. I do think that women have to be prepared to try to change the dialogue that still marginalizes us and fatherhood in our society and also accept that it is going to be harder for you as a woman with a family so be prepared for the struggle, which isn’t that much different from any regular struggle and is in no way comparable to say what the women in this article are struggling with… I don’t think divorce b/c he can’t juggle is a good reason for divorce …. and I just think this article really shows you what marriage is about… would also have been good for the article to show men who stand by their women …. (this lack of this female side of the story is everywhere in our culture) don’t show enough this softer side of a good man and we suffer for the lack of this dialogue in our society… as a sidenote our military needs to do a better job of examining these soldiers when they come home and after their first incident of these brain injuries — just like how we wouldn’t want our kids going back onto the football field after concussions — and I think that our exalting of the military life sometimes overlooks these major problems in the way our military is run or what really are the sacrifices of war …

    1. @Cara- I saw a fascinating study recently (I will have to look it up) that found that very sick women are far more likely to get divorced than sick men. Apparently men are less likely to be willing to care for ill/injured wives. So that’s one reason you read less of those stories. Though I’m sure they do exist and it would be nice to read a few.

  7. Let’s get real here – men don’t normally think ahead of time about how to juggle childcare, family life, etc. with work because there is no advantage to them doing so. They will be deemed less manly by their wives, who will find plenty to criticize about their strategy and will probably veto it anyway.

    Reminds me of a lady at work who complained how her sons-in-law watch football instead of helping out in the kitchen before or after family meals. I said, “Do you really want a bunch of guys stumbling around your kitchen after Thanksgiving, asking a dozen times which drawer the forks go in?”

    Her response was…silence.

    1. @Bruce – Do you think women naturally know which drawer forks go in when they’re visiting other people’s houses? If someone believes she should be helpful, she’ll hunt around for the drawer and, while she’s hunting, will see where the other things go too. Plus, you don’t need to know where a drawer is to do the dishes in the sink. Sounds like your colleague just has a lazy group of sons-in-law. This reminds me of a broader point, that basic cooking, cleaning and childcare skills are something anyone can learn. When one party acts clueless, it’s usually because someone else is letting him/her get away with it — not because any gender is inherently one way or another.

      1. Also, sometimes, the “acting clueless” is deliberate so they can just stop doing the extra work and someone else will do it for them. (This happens with both genders, btw.)

  8. @Laura – My colleague’s response was silence because she got my point. She’s traditional & conservative, regards the kitchen as her domain and despite her complaint, doesn’t really want the guys in the kitchen unless they’re carving the ham.
    Alot of the “women trying to have it all” issue stems from women saying they want men to step it up re. childcare and rearing, but in reality many will claim it as their domain no matter what. Husbands know this and many of them will let her bear the burden.
    So to answer your question, women do not naturally know where the forks go. But they do reinforce men’s behavior for better or worse.

    1. I think I would be silent too, but just from being dumbfounded about what an asinine question that was. It’s a “not worth arguing with this loser” level question. No offense. *smiles sweetly*

  9. I do not cook and do not care to learn, and I’m a woman and I make good $ and could make more if my husband would do more childcare,worry more about everything home and kids related and not on the revenue line as much as I worry about it and it is part of my second shift. That he and our society are still really ill equipped on a lot of levels for this to happen is a pretty big deal … the idea that he is incapable of it is just crazy and should be debugged as soon as possible…

    1. also the idea that a man is less manly or less sexy b/c he can’t get things like fork washing or fathering or cooking.. that to me is just not true… aside from say a little wine, the libido of the married woman is definitely improved I think by her man being more able to parent with her along side her and less as say another child needing to be told what to do… I do think that take charge women like to take charge but still… I think guys who think that it is hot for them not to help – i’d be curious what other women think about this – but i definitely do not feel that way.. and if i wanted to raise kids that way I would have been less interested in marriage..

  10. Maybe Bruce is referring more to traditional roles (SAH-wives with working husbands) but I second the comment from Cara — if both partners are working, nothing helps libido than an equal partner who knows his way around the kitchen and household! As an aside, I actually know several Italian men who are great cooks and all of them seem to have pretty happy and lucky wives!

      1. That cartoon is quite funny. Housework is one of those things that I do believe has undergone (and is still undergoing) a sea change over the last generation. You read baby boomer era literature and women are complaining about ironing shirts. There have been many fights in this household over the years, but none of them have featured ironing. As a corollary to that, none of my fantasies feature ironing either.

      2. I fantasize that my husband would agree to do my ironing in addition to his own. (Just kidding. I gave up on that and just buy clothes that don’t need ironing now.)
        Anyone who wants to put dishes away in our kitchen is welcome to do so. It is pretty obvious what goes where, unless we’ve gotten every piece of cutlery out (which we never do), so we’ve never noticed a problem when someone else does it.
        Bruce’s comments, though, remind me of a phenomenon I noticed in college- there were a few men in my dorm who wanted to date really smart women, but then wanted those women to have not ambitions beyond being a wife and possibly a mother. My friends and I called them “misas”- “men in search of anachronisms”. The saddest thing, though is I saw one of my friends recently, and she told me about a couple of women we knew who ended up marrying a misa and now have a top priority of staying in shape and young looking (we’re all 40ish) so that their husband won’t leave them for a second, younger wife. Yikes. Harsh, but I guess not completely surprising.

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