Myths about Women’s Careers: New Research – Part II

recent Harvard Business Review study of 25,000 Harvard Business School graduates, spanning three generations (baby boomers, generation Xers, and millennials) sheds light on some myths and gaps in expectations about women’s careers that persist across generations. Because this study focuses on Harvard Business School graduates, who are a highly educated and ambitious group of women and men, I think the findings are particularly eye-opening for the rest of us in that they provide a window into how entrenched attitudes about gender roles are in our society. These entrenched attitudes affect our careers as women, as well as our overall satisfaction with our lives. The big question for many of us is, “Haven’t things changed for millennials?” Some of the following findings from this study can help answer this and other questions about gender gaps in our careers. The researchers found the following about expectations for career priority for men upon graduation from Harvard Business School’s MBA program:

  • More than half of the boomer and generation X men expected that their careers would take priority over their spouse’s or partner’s (this attitude was slightly less prevalent for men of color).
  • 50 percent of millennial men expected their careers to take priority, which is only slightly less than previous generations.
  • 39 percent of white men and 48 percent of men of color anticipated their spouse’s career would be equally important.
The career priority expectations for women upon graduation from Harvard Business School’s MBA program were different:
  • The vast majority of women across racial groups and generations anticipated that their careers would rank equally with their partner’s.
  • 75 percent of millennial women expected their careers would rank equally with their partner’s.
  • 26 percent of millennial women expected their partner’s career would take priority. Notice the big gap in expectations between millennial women (26 percent) and millennial men (50 percent).
  • Only 7 percent of generation X women and 3 percent of boomer women thought their careers would take priority over their partner’s.
The study’s authors also looked at the reality for career priority after a number of years in the workforce and found that 75 percent of generation X and boomer men reported that their careers had, in fact, taken precedence (this was less true for black women and men). This is much higher than either women or men expected upon graduation. Men in the study shared the following expectations for family responsibility upon graduation:
  • 75 percent of generation X and boomer men expected their partners would be the primary child-care provider (somewhat lower for black men).
  • 66 percent of millennial men have this expectation.
  • 33 percent of millennial men expect to do an equal share of childcare, compared to 22 percent of generation X men and 16% of boomer men.
Again, women’s expectations upon graduation for sharing family responsibility differed:
  • 50 percent of generation X and boomer women expected to have primary responsibility for childcare.
  • 42 percent of millennial women expect to do so, which is only slightly less than previous generations.

Impact of Findings on Career Satisfaction

This study showed that all women were more likely to have egalitarian expectations for both career priority and for child-care responsibility than were the men, and the generation X and boomer women reported disappointment about how their careers ended up taking lower priority. The authors of the study reported that “traditional partnerships were linked to higher career satisfaction for men, whereas women who ended up in such arrangements were less satisfied, regardless of their original expectations.” While the expectations for equality of millennials show a slight improvement, this group is too early in their careers to know yet if their reality will be different. Remember the story of my client, June, in part I of this series published last week? As long as our deeply entrenched attitudes about gender roles (that women’s careers are less important and that childcare is the primary responsibility of women) remain unchallenged, they will play out in both organizations and families as barriers for women’s careers, and change will continue to be very, very slow. The gap between women’s expectations and their actual experiences will continue to be large. It’s no wonder that there are so few women in senior leadership roles—but let’s not blame women. Entrenched attitudes present both internal and external barriers to women realizing their potential.  Let’s work together, women and men, to challenge existing attitudes and practices both at home and at work. What do you think about the findings from this study? What changes would you like to see in the ways women and men balance career and family responsibilities?]]>

Myths about Women’s Careers: New Research – Part I

research reported in the Harvard Business Review dispels several commonly held myths about the lack of equity in advancement for women and why so few women are in senior management. Here are three of the myths:

Myth #1: Women fail to achieve equality because they take themselves off the career track to have children.

Myth #2: Women value careers less than men.

Myth #3: Having children makes employees less reliable, less driven, and less creative.

In their study of 25,000 MBAs over three generations (baby boomers, generation Xers, and millennials) of graduates from the Harvard Business School, the authors found the following:
  • Only 11 percent of generation X and boomer women with children under eighteen were out of the workforce full time to care for children. The figure is 7 percent for women of color.
  • Both women and men expressed the same amount of ambition upon graduation from the MBA program across the three generations.
  • Both women and men in senior management teams were likely to have made career decisions to accommodate family responsibilities, and they were still able to perform at a level sufficient to achieve senior management positions.
So, why do men achieve more success in their careers? As Lisa Miller of New York Magazine put it, “Most women work full-time through their child-rearing years, and yet they achieve less than men at work because, well, they’re women.” In other words, both workplace cultures and societal attitudes—not the choices women make—are responsible for women achieving less. The following story demonstrates how workplace and societal attitudes may be impacting women’s careers: I have a coaching client, June, who has been driven to be a senior leader since she was a small child. She always earned good grades, completed two advanced professional degrees, and worked hard. Although she worked for two major corporations, she was not able to get the challenging assignments or promotions that she desired and felt ready to accomplish. She was frustrated and unhappy at work. When her son was born, he provided an excuse to step out of the corporate world, which did not seem to value her. She and her husband agreed that she would stay home full time with their son, although that had never been her plan. She explained that she would never have left her full-time position if she felt that challenging opportunities were available to her. She still longed for meaningful work, but the part-time opportunities available to her were neither interesting nor demanding, and she was growing more unhappy by the day. June’s story reflects the impact of the three myths about women and work. While June did value having a career, she may not have been considered for challenging assignments or advancement because she was of childbearing age, and she was assumed to be less committed to a career. None of this was actually true for June, and her company unnecessarily lost a bright and talented worker. What can organizations do to keep talented women and men? Here are five tips:
  1. Discard the myth that women don’t value careers; provide opportunities for their advancement and development, even when they are in their childbearing years.
  2. Provide a way back into full-time work for women and men who use family leave time or flex time when starting a family.
  3. Provide meaningful and challenging part-time work opportunities for both women and men who want to cut back for awhile when they start a family, but who do not intend to step off their career path.
  4. Stop punishing (by judging harshly) women and men for wanting to share family responsibilities and temporarily requesting flex-time and part-time work.
  5. Support couples in being equal partners and sharing family responsibilities.
But wait! There’s more! Read about more interesting findings from this myth-breaking research next week in Part II.]]>

The Confidence Myth : A Book Review

The Confidence Myth: Why Women Undervalue Their Skills and How to Get Over It, author Helene Lerner acknowledges both the external prejudices and the internal factors that create challenges for women, many of which I have discussed in previous articles. Lerner also debunks some long-held myths about confidence that are important for us to consider: Myth #1: Being confident means you are fearless. Lerner points out that, actually, most people who are successful sometimes feel fear, nervousness, or doubt. In fact, feeling nervous can keep us sharp and alert so that we are poised to do our best at important moments. Myth #2: Being confident means being self-sufficient and not needing help or support. Once again, not true. We all need people to be thought partners, coaches, and cheerleaders who encourage us to take risks and go for what we want. Myth #3: A confident person is calm and certain. Lerner points out that “confidence is taking action while having conflicting thoughts and sensations,” which doesn’t always mean being comfortable. Myth #4: Leadership presence is something you are born with. Not so, says Lerner. Leadership presence involves skills that we can learn. These skills include being authentic, demonstrating poise during stressful times, listening well, dressing appropriately, and using power language to assert yourself (especially true for women). Myth #5: If I don’t do it, no one else will. Lerner notes that learning to say no, setting limits with people, and identifying and prioritizing our own needs are essential to our own success. As women, we are often so focused on the needs of others that we don’t even know what our own needs are. Lerner suggests that we make time for simple pleasures that replenish us; get rid of time bandits like guilt, people pleasing, and perfectionism; and learn to say no. Myth #6: Being a “nice” person means not bragging and not talking about my abilities. We need to be able to toot our own horns and advocate for ourselves. How will others know what we are good at—or how confident we can be—unless we tell them? Myth #7: Women have to be twice as good, or perfectionists, to get ahead. Even in the face of prejudices and negative stereotypes about women, Lerner argues that we need to give up perfectionism. Being perfect is not attainable and striving for that standard is not sustainable. It’s better in the long run to take risks, reach high, and grow from mistakes—and learn to use a standard of “good enough” to keep from getting paralyzed by perfectionism. Myth #8: Good leaders always make rational decisions. Nonsense, once again. Lerner points out that “research shows a positive correlation between intuition and business success.” Learning to listen to and trust our intuition, or inner voice, is not some feminine magical notion. In fact, both male and female leaders talk about the importance of making rapid decisions that draw upon their experience. Lerner states that we can even reframe intuition as “the rapid processing of everything we already know, everything we’ve learned and experienced.” However you explain it, we each have an inner voice we can learn to trust and that can be an important source of information. Lerner’s book is packed with useful information, real-life stories, and exercises to develop important skills for creating the perception of confidence. I highly recommend this book.]]>