I’ve had several people send me articles about new research on Harvard Business School women, and the various factors that might have held back their careers (here’s one from the New York Times).
The upshot: female graduates and male graduates have equal ambitions. This is true even after the graduates start families. But over time, women are less likely to be in senior roles and are more likely to be unhappy with their careers. No doubt there are myriad reasons, glass ceilings among them. But one possible explanation? The mismatch in expectations among men and women on whose careers will take precedence, and who will do the majority of childcare.
Here’s how the Times put it: “About 60 percent of male graduates who were 32 to 67 years old expected that their careers would take priority over their wives’, and nearly three-quarters of the men said that turned out to be true. About 80 percent expected their spouses to do most of the child care, and that happened for 86 percent of them. Among women in that age group, however, only 17 to 25 percent expected their husbands’ careers to take precedence, but they did so 40 percent of the time. Half of the women expected to handle a majority of child care, but nearly three-quarters said they ended up doing so.”
In other words, men’s expectations that family life would support their careers were met or exceeded. Women’s expectations of more egalitarian families were not.
So what are we to make of this? Is there any way to change this? If you and your partner both have ambitions, how do you get him to take your career seriously?
I can’t say that I have neat answers to these questions. I started writing this blog post after finishing my to-do list on a Sunday evening. My husband took our 3 kids skiing for the day, partly because he wanted to, and partly because I needed the time to work. He took them to a movie Saturday afternoon (before I went to the concert in NYC), again, partly because he wanted to, and partly because I needed the time to work. He offered Friday night as well but I didn’t take it (I wanted to get the tree decorated and have a family birthday dinner).
So that sounds like taking my career seriously. But there are other ways to look at it too. Why did I need all this weekend time to work? Basically because I have handled a flood of during-the-week parental duties (and to be fair, fun stuff too) of late. He’s been traveling a lot during the week so I’ve covered the bedtime battles and early kid wake-ups. I took our daughter to her eye doctor appointment and chaperoned our son’s field trip. I obviously can’t delegate my own OB appointments, but those take time too. We have never had a conversation where we explicitly agreed to this split but this seems to be the way it has evolved. It can work in our case because big chunks of writing can be moved around, but if I had a conventional job, the assumption that he would do what he needed to during the week and I would do what I needed to on the weekend would not work. To be sure, it doesn’t always work for us (interviews and speeches generally can’t happen on weekends), but this is a different situation than many female (or male) HBS grads find themselves in.
It’s hard to know what is selection and what is not. Perhaps a fair chunk of men don’t view career ambition as a primary requirement in a partner. They’re not turned off by it, but they’re not specifically selecting for it either. So in many cases, everyone’s cool with the man’s career taking precedence. On the other hand, perhaps women with big career ambitions, of the sort that send them to HBS, would like to marry men like them. I wrote about a study of early career NIH grant recipients recently that found these high-potential women researchers were about twice as likely to be in 2-career families than men who’d received the same awards. I’d have to assume that these intelligent women were not completely blindsided by this.
I think there may also be some different opinions on what constitutes the proper raising of children that might lead to women doing more of total childcare. I don’t like generalizations, but from my Mosaic interviews, I find that even high-earning women often compare what they do to an idealized version of what a stay-at-home mom would do. Modern men, on the other hand, compare themselves to their fathers. Perhaps the solution to this is for female HBS grads to compare themselves to their fathers. They likely earn more and spend more time with their kids too! We can choose our reference groups.
In any case, if you are an ambitious woman who finds herself in a partnership with an equally ambitious man, but not one who naturally thinks his wife’s career has anything to do with him, there are certain behaviors that can keep this from undermining your ambitions. First, take your own career seriously. Don’t take yourself out of the running for things because you assume your family wouldn’t go for it. If you need to put in more hours or travel during a certain crunch time, do it.
One way you can do this? Hire more help. Don’t scrimp on what you need under the misguided notion that using as little childcare as possible is a sign of parental success. Hopefully one side effect of all this ambition in one family is a fair amount of cash as well. Just because he doesn’t do something doesn’t mean you need to do it. While I appreciate Sheryl Sandberg’s speech line that men who do the laundry have more sex, I highly doubt that either Sandberg or her husband do the laundry.
You can also reconsider what having a “supportive spouse” really means. Things that might sound nice aren’t always necessary. In a book acknowledgements once, I remember a man thanking his wife for reading his book aloud to him so he could hear how it sounded. My husband has never done this. But so what? I can read my own books out loud to myself, or I could hire someone to read them to me. A satisfying career does not require a two-people/one-paycheck model.
Of course, you can ask your husband for his support, too. Sometimes assumptions are just assumptions, and women do more because it is the path of least resistance in a world where we’re still socialized that way. So ask him to do things that would make it easier for you to lean in, whatever that might be, like scheduling and covering kid appointments (“You can call, or I can call and make the appointment at a time I think will be convenient for you. Which would you like?”). He might grumble, but you can stand firm in the face of grumbles. Family peace is great, but not if it comes because you’ve given in.
The good news is that many families do figure this out. I know several HBS grads in pretty equitable marriages. How does the split work in your house?