Unmet and mismatched expectations, or getting him to take your career seriously

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?

17 thoughts on “Unmet and mismatched expectations, or getting him to take your career seriously

  1. I read one of these articles as well, and I didn’t quite get a sense for whether those women who are doing more of the childcare/whose careers are deprioritized CHOSE that specifically or are actually unhappy with the way things turned out.

    Anecdotally I have a friend who is an HBS alum who took several years off while her kids were young and then went back to work and that was totally their family’s choice.

    I guess what I’m saying is that I wasn’t sure if there was a problem to be fixed and these women were unhappy about the situation, or if this is what they wanted when the children moved from theory to reality.

    Quite honestly, I would have said the same thing when I was young & single or just-married – that my career was equally as important – heck, we moved to Seattle from AZ for my job! But when the actual kid showed up 7 years later, what *I* wanted was actually very different from what I had thought all along.

    I do agree with you that it takes “practice”, though, of claiming your commitments as important, to get to a state where the natural balance of things works out so each parent gets the work time they need without having to explicitly discuss it each time. Kudos to you and your hubby for being in that spot.

    1. @ARC – In looking a little more at the study, it seems that very few women who were out of the work force actually wanted to be out. If I’m reading it correctly, men and women also had equal ambitions after having kids. It wasn’t that they were coming out of HBS all shiny and new and ready to take on the world and then life hit. This was after life hit. I agree with you though that choices matter a lot and those are often hard to figure out in a study. A lot of life is nuance, and that’s almost impossible to ask in a way that people can give a neat answer.

  2. I think one of the other factors is relocation. In many companies, you can’t progress unless you’re willing to relocate frequently. For dual career couples, that is difficult-to-impossible. Men are far less likely to be part of a dual career couple than women. So, the men — specifically the men in a single career household — progress more rapidly.

    I look around me and I see only men with stay at home wives. My husband pursued a flexible work arrangement so that I could make my last move, but that cord only stretches so far…

  3. Interesting topic…. I actually chose a partner who was less ambitious than I, thinking that as we aged and had children, he could be the one to take a backseat to my career. Interestingly, I failed to account for my own implicit assumptions about what motherhood *should* be. Now, with two small ones, my husband would be willing to step off of the career track and be more present at home (and he’s a great cook), but he doesn’t always make choices for the kids the way that I might (for instance, he lets them watch more television than I would like and he is generally more willing to let them just hang around the house while he takes care of his own stuff, whereas I am more likely to plan playdates or take them bike riding or organize a project that involves them). Anyway, I find that I struggle with my own feelings about the childhood experiences I think my kids should be having (and my desire to be a part of those experiences) and the simultaneous knowledge that I really need to be the breadwinner and prioritize my career because I chose to marry a man with less ambition, less education and a much lower earning potential. We’re still working this out, and it might get easier as the kids get old enough to go to school, but right now, I find that I have a constant *need* to be in two places at once. I try to be it all and it results in a lot of stress and pressure for me and confusion for my husband about what my expectations really are and how he should be structuring his life.

    1. @TKL – this is an interesting point, and I’m sure it’s one breadwinning men must deal with. You might want to spend more time with your family, or transition into a different job, but if your wife has decided not to invest in her earning potential, then that limits your options. Different people parent and run households in different ways, and if you decide that one party is going to be responsible for that, then the other party can’t really insist it be done her way.

      1. @Laura — I think TKL is the wife, and has a husband — she characterizes him as being less ambitious and less educated than she is. As I read it, she’s also concerned that he is not providing adequate interaction and stimulation when he’s home with the kids.

        Interesting idea that women who are career-oriented should compare themselves not to the impossibly perfect do-it-all moms, but to their own fathers (who were likely to be chief breadwinners with lots of support at home). Since most women, as you point out in your piece, are not likely to have that level of support, I’m not sure where this comparison will lead.

        I think I’d rather think about a mental tossed salad of career and parenting roles relatively discrete from traditional gender roles. Then, all the necessary bits get thrown into one bowl and each parent can sort of take a scoop, maybe selecting for what suits each party.

        Not sure about how you all grew up, but I’m not sure how things would have gone in our house both my dad AND my mom had parented like my dad!

        1. @KO – I picked up that TKL was a woman! Maybe my post was more gender neutral than intended — I was trying to point out that some men may feel the same way that she has, but once you decide on this career split as a family, the cards fall where they fall.
          But yes, who you choose to compare yourself to is very important.

  4. The title of this post was so timely for me personally. Just yesterday I optionally travelled to another city to get more face-time with higher ups, leaving before the kids got up, which meant my husband took the kids to school (which I normally do because their schools are closer to my regular work). After I boarded my train, one disaster happened after another. Turned out our after-school caretaker had to go to the emergency room (she’s okay), so I was calling to arrange for back-up after-school care (which my work so wonderfully provides). But unfortunately, that also meant my husband had to rearrange important meetings and leave work to pick up kids to take them to back-up care because he had already dropped them off at their schools. He then had to leave work earlier than normal to pick the kids up in the evening. Meanwhile, I missed the first train coming home and then my second train was delayed. So I ended up getting home after the kids had gone to bed.

    These were emergencies and my husband, to his full credit, picked up all the pieces. Unfortunately, it led to a lot of conflict/grumbling and we are slightly traumatized with the prospect of me doing this kind of optional-but-good-for-my-career traveling again. I am part-time, so I already do a lot of the leaving work early so I can pick up the kids, but I’m also the “bread winner.” So I tend to think that I shouldn’t take off any more time from my work than I already do.

    However, if I’m honest with myself, my career affords more flexibility than his does regardless of the pay. (He is currently at a point in his career where the hours and expectations are long and high, but the pay is pretty awful.) And it was my choice to go part-time because I truly did want to be able to pick up the kids a few days a week. In other words, I definitely identify with the statistic that I expect my career will be as important as my spouse’s and I will share child care equally. And while I don’t think my husband thinks his career should take priority, by virtue of our choices and current positions in our careers, I feel like my career is taking the bigger hit and I’m pulling more weight on the family-front.

    I’m not sure there is a point to my comment besides saying—thanks for writing an interesting piece and sharing the article (which I will forward along to said husband once the grumbling dies down).

    1. @EB – thanks for your comment, and thanks for sharing the post with your husband. One of the things I talk about in my next book is avoiding the natural human temptation to draw some larger conclusion from any given event. You had a rough day when you were trying to invest in your career, but that doesn’t mean that investing in your career is a bad thing, or that it’s impossible to have it all, or anything else. Some days just suck, and such is the human condition. You survived, and your husband did what he had to do, and there was grumbling, but of course there will be. He had a bad day too. We can’t expect bump-free lives, and if we expect bump-free lives, we fail to see what good stuff is already there.

  5. You have to bear with my post, as I am a single 30 year old with only 4 legged children that have a doggie door. With that being said I am a critical point in my career and climbing is much easier being single. I have made several life choices based on the realistic expectation that kids and a husband would affect my success and lifestyle. I was married, and even as the breadwinner my climb was not as important as it should have been. Not due to family issues, but jealousy issues. I needed to do dinners with executives to be taken seriously (I’m a solar engineer in a construction company, they are all men) and that was not acceptable for me to not be home after work and out with male colleagues. I have also actively decided that I don’t want children for what that would mean in my life. I have a niece and nephew and adore them to pieces, and have a tiny view into life with children and what that means to the bigger picture. I am not judging women that have children and careers, in fact, quite the opposite, you have to be a pretty amazing person (women or man) to have a full time+ career, a husband, and children! I don’t feel like I am cut out of that cloth, and value my freedom to do what I need to do to further advance myself, without juggling family. I have not found a perfect situation for a woman in my shoes, but an older boyfriend with mostly grown children has afforded me some of the flexibility while feeling like part of a family. I have always valued my role in society and the footprint I leave behind, and that looks like an active career that makes a difference in the world. It never really showed children as part of the equation. But being a 30 year old woman not wanting children bears its own fun questions and dilemmas, especially around the holidays and extended family!

    1. @holly – thanks for your comment and your perspective! The issue you brought up of your ex not wanting you to do dinners/happy hours/etc. with male colleagues/clients is probably not a rare one. This may factor in to how things stack up in many families.

  6. I’ve been avoiding the articles on this study because I’m not ready to face this topic. I’m still too conflicted about the career changes I made this year. I’m doing what I want and still making good money, but there is also no questioning that everyone in the family has claimed some of the time I freed up in making the changes. It didn’t all come to me. For the most part, I’m OK with that, but until my new career gets on firmer footing, I am avoiding serious introspection about whether or not I’m becoming a statistic- because I want to do what is right for me, not what I think I “should” do by any external measure.

    I do think, though, that there is more at play here than just internal relationship dynamics. The expectations of the rest of society play a role, both subtly in who gets the guilt trips for not volunteering more at school, and not so subtly in who gets the phone calls from schools and doctors- which in my informal survey is almost always the mother, even if the couple has listed the father as the primary contact.

    1. @Melanie – and who gets the question on how do you manage it all… But yes, I know of what you speak in the first part of this comment. I’ve had several interrogations lately that have gone something like this: “You work?” Me: “Yes.” Person: “Like 5 days a week?” Me, joking: “Well, I run my own business so it’s really like 6 or 7.” Person: “But what do you do?” Me: “I write books and articles and do public speaking.” Person: “Oh, so you work from home…” I can tell the person is relieved. Clearly I don’t have a real job, so their worldview has not needed to be altered. The last person who did this was the OB I saw at the group practice I go to. She’s the one I hadn’t seen yet. I was not too enthusiastic.

      1. I’m forever altering someone’s world view. My husband is 1 of 4 executives at his company. I also work full time out of the home. None of the other executive’s wives work. This year they are doing an executive luncheon as part of their holiday festivities and it includes wives. When my hisband had to decline on my behalf, since I will be at work, there was so much confusion and bewilderment. No one could seem to understand that I somehow work full time outside the home and am not available midday with 1 weeks notice.

        1. @beth – Ah yes. Anytime people start talking about “the wives” there are all sorts of assumptions in play. I had a guy tell me once about how important it was to live near your clients so “the wives” could network on your behalf in the community. His company was 40% female, by the way. My guess is he’ll advance for a while but pretty soon there will be a tipping point and it will come back to bite him.

  7. I think the problem with setting up expectations for a family work/life balance is that perspectives change over time. When my husband and I first moved in together, our home/work split was pretty equal, and I assumed it would be the same once we had kids. But when my son was born, I emotionally connected to him so much faster than my husband did, and that (plus my being on maternity leave) sort of cemented an inequality, where I am the default person with executive charge of my son’s life, even though I am now back at work. A shift is being made, but it’s slow, because I now have expectations of myself as a mother that I need to let go of, and my husband sometimes needs to step up further.

    1. @Leanne – navigating the default split that happens with maternity leave (and nursing) is tough for many couples. I think a smart approach is to be aware of it and make sure habits don’t get set too deeply. And some guys take some leave when their baby is a little older and they can be more of a primary parent.

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