Harvard Study: Women’s Careers Are Ruined By Their Husbands, Not Kids

sad coupleAlmost a decade ago, the writer Linda Hirshman exhorted ambitious women to marry men with less money or social capital than they had. In articles and her book, Get to Work, she told women that they should avoid ever taking on more than half of the housework or child care. How to do it? Either marry a man who is extremely committed to equality, or do what she says is the easier route and “marry down.” Hirshman explained in the American Prospect that such a choice is not “brutally strategic,” it’s just smart. “If you are devoted to your career goals and would like a man who will support that, you’re just doing what men throughout the ages have done: placing a safe bet.”

This was a highly controversial piece of advice at the time, but Hirshman might have been right. A new study of Harvard Business School graduates from HBS’s Robin Ely and Colleen Ammerman and Hunter College sociologist Pamela Stone shows that high-achieving women are not meeting the career goals they set for themselves in their 20s. It’s not because they’re “opting out” of the workforce when they have kids, but because they’re allowing their partners’ careers to take precedence over their own.

The study’s authors interviewed 25,000 men and women who graduated from Harvard Business School over the past several decades. The male graduates were much more likely to be in senior management positions and have more responsibility and more direct reports than their female peers. But why? It’s not because women are leaving the workforce en masse. The authors found, definitively, that the “opt-out” explanation is a myth. Among Gen X and baby boomers they surveyed, only 11 percent of women left the workforce to be full-time moms. That figure is lower for women of colour—only 7 percent stopped working. The vast majority (74 percent) of Gen Xers, women who are currently 32-48 and in the prime of their child-rearing years, work full time, an average of 52 hours a week.

But while these women are still working, they are also making more unexpected sacrifices than their male classmates are. When they graduated, more than half of male HBS grads said they expected their careers would take precedence over their partners’. Only 7 percent of Gen X women and 3 percent of baby boomer women said they expected their careers to take precedence. Here’s what they did expect: The majority of women said they assumed they would have egalitarian marriages in which both spouses’ careers were taken equally seriously.

A lot of those women were wrong. About 40 percent of Gen X and boomer women said their spouses’ careers took priority over theirs, while only about 20 percent of them had planned on their careers taking a back seat. Compare that with the men: More than 70 percent of Gen X and boomer men say their careers are more important than their wives’. When you look at child care responsibilities, the numbers are starker. A full 86 percent of Gen X and boomer men said their wives take primary responsibility for child care, and the women agree: 65 percent of Gen X women and 72 percent of boomer women—all HBS grads, most of whom work—say they’re the ones who do most of the child care in their relationships.

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