My daughter, Grace, is in her first year of college at a very competitive school. To qualify for admission, she took nine Advanced Placement credits in high school, captained two varsity sports teams, went to regionals in the science fair and wrote, directed and performed a one-person play.
She’s taking sixteen credits in her first semester of college and has begun talking about the best graduate studies for her career goals.
Her female friends, also at good schools, were similarly focused in high school and are achieving in college. They plan to go to medical school, to get PhDs, to excel.
This is what we want for our daughters, isn’t it? That they can be anything they set their minds to? That if they work hard then the sky is the limit? That there is no boundary to what they can achieve with their lives?
And yet, here comes a new study from researchers at Harvard Business School that shows high-achieving women don’t feel a great deal of satisfaction in how their lives have turned out.
To tell you the truth, once I read the study I had to take a few days to process and understand it because it rocked so many of my assumptions.
You see, the researchers sampled 25,000 graduates of the Harvard Business School and found an enormous gap in expectations between male graduates and female graduates. It looked like this (for the Gen X group age 32-48):
- 61% of men expected their careers to take precedence over their wife’s career
- 70% of men reported that their careers did take precedence over their wife’s career
- 25% of women expected their husband’s career to take precedence over theirs
- 40% of women reported that their careers took a backseat to their husband’s
That’s a lot of disappointed women.
Think about it – they went to Harvard Business School. They expected to have a career parallel to their husband’s career – but…they didn’t.
There’s another question the researchers asked which is relevant – and it’s about child care:
- 78% of men expected their wives to handle primary responsibility for child care
- 86% of men reported that their wife was the primary caregiver for their children
- 50% of women expected to be the primary caregiver
- 65% found themselves doing so
So the majority of women expect a career-leveling partnership with their husbands, while the majority of men actually…don’t.
Women expected they’d be 50-50 partners with their spouse when it came to childcare, but men didn’t share that expectation.
It manifests itself this way: Men report greater satisfaction with their professional lives than do women. Across the board. Women feel stymied when it comes to having meaningful work and professional accomplishments. They feel like they haven’t had the chance to grow professionally the way they’d like to.
I wonder if part of the reason women are paid less than men for the same work is because the person deciding who gets paid how much is a guy who brings his own views to the table, thinking a man’s salary is “must have” while a woman’s salary is “nice to have”. Maybe women aren’t promoted because subconsciously the boss thinks she’ll step back and subordinate her career to her husband’s if he needs to relocate for his job. Because aren’t men’s jobs more important? And all women are primarily taking care of kids?
There’s a big, untrue belief that women want to opt out of their careers to care for children. The researchers write:
Our survey data and other research suggest that when high-achieving, highly educated professional women leave their jobs after becoming mothers, only a small number do so because they prefer to devote themselves exclusively to motherhood; the vast majority leave reluctantly and as a last resort, because they find themselves in unfulfilling roles with dim prospects for advancement. The message that they are no longer considered ‘players’ is communicated in various, sometimes subtle ways: They may have been stigmatized for taking advantage of flex options or reduced schedules, passed over for high-profile assignments, or removed from projects they once led.”
I also wonder if the reason so many of my fabulous, gorgeous, achieving female friends are still single is because a guy subsconsiously thinks, “She’ll never put her career on hold for me” or “She’s more successful than I want my wife to be.” If my hunch is true, how sad is that?
So what do we tell our daughters? Do we tell them to work hard, do well and excel in their chosen fields – to maybe end up graduating from the storied Harvard Business School – only to have to a secondary, unfulfilling career? Or to stay single their whole lives? Or, if they want to be truly successful, to never have kids?
And what do we tell our sons? Do we tell them that their work is always going to be the most important thing in their marriage? That women’s careers don’t matter? That good fathering amounts to less than a part-time gig?
Or do we take a deep breath and start thinking and talking differently? Talking about individual needs, the amazing power of true, loving partnerships and the joy that comes from allowing one another to be at their best – whether that looks like someone staying at home and someone going to work, or both going to work, or both starting freelance gigs so they can parent the way they want? And maybe thinking about how to best utilize people in the workplace based on their accomplishments and abilities without a thought to gender?
It’s a conversation we need to have, and a mindset we need to shift.
So, yeah, I know what I’m going to say to my daughter and also to my son.
And I’m saying it right now.