Career Vs. Family: A Continual Struggle For HBS Alumnae

Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg

Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg

When Sheryl Sandberg returned to Harvard Business School for a talk in 2011, her pointed answer to a question from an audience of MBAs drew stunned silence. “If current trends continue,” Sandberg said, “15 years from today about one-third of the women in this audience will be working full-time and almost all of you will be working for the guy you are sitting next to.”

It turns out that the chief operating officer of Facebook’s gloomy prediction isn’t materializing. A new study by Harvard Business School published on Thursday (April 4) shows that only 10% of Generation X alumnae (ages 31 to 47) are at home caring for their children full time. Some 70% of all women alumni from HBS are in the paid workforce, while 56% work full time.

“She is very far off the mark,” says Robin Ely, senior associate dean for culture and community and a professor. “There is this image of these women that is not positive. People think they get these MBAs. They have taken a seat from a man and then they go off, get married and don’t do anything. But it’s just not their experience.”


The number that Sandberg, an HBS alumna, quoted two years ago and in her recently published book, Lean In, comes from an earlier informal study culled from reunion data some 15 years ago. The new research is the most systematic study ever done of business school alumnae. Dubbed the Life and Leadership After HBS survey, it addresses everything from employment and child-caring responsibilities to personal satisfaction with faith and wealth. The study includes responses from 3,786 women and 2,655 men, a response rate of 25% from the 25,810 who were surveyed. “There is a lot of talk out there about this,” adds Ely, who oversaw the research. “The idea behind the study was to get a really reliable set of statistics on what our alumnae are doing.”

50yearsThe full results won’t be available until later this year, but the school shared key findings around gender to commemorate the admission of women into the two-year MBA program 50 years ago. Only eight women were enrolled in that first full-time MBA class. Now women make up 40% of the student body.

In an interview with Poets&Quants, Ely said the much higher estimate of women who have dropped out of the workforce altogether is something she commonly encounters in her travels. On a recent alumni visit to Northern California, Ely said she was horrified to hear a female alum say “‘I can’t believe that 15 years out, only 25% of the women are working.’ But after all is said and done, only 10% of women are at home full-time caring for their kids,” says Ely. “And of the people currently at home with kids, we asked if they plan to go back to work. Only 3% said no, 11% were unsure, and 86% said yes. We are also looking at a moment in time. People think that people leave the workforce to care for their kids and they never come back. That’s not true.”


Also surprising, adds Ely, was the fact that among women not employed full-time, many were working challenging part-time jobs that average 25 hours in a typical week and the vast majority (three-fourths) are engaged in pro bono and volunteer efforts. Thirteen percent of Gen X women are working part-time, compared with only 2% of men. Some 63% of the women report regular or significant volunteer commitments. Alumnae who care for children full-time are even more committed to pro bono work, with 67% reporting substantial volunteer activity. This fits with the importance HBS alums of both genders place on community involvement—65% value making a contribution to society. “A third are in significant leadership positions in their community work,” says Ely. “These are the women who are running the capital campaign at their children’s schools.”

Some may take a less optimistic view of the study’s results, however. Ely’s research found, for example, that some 43% of female graduates from the Boomer generation (ages 48-66) are no longer working full-time, compared with only 28% of men—a difference of 15 percentage points.  The discrepancy is more pronounced among Gen X women. Some 26% of women in this age group are currently out of the full-time workforce, five times more than their male peers–but well below Sandberg’s estimate that two-thirds won’t be working full-time. The study found that the more children alumnae have, the more likely they are to nix full-time jobs. A whopping 37% of Gen X women with two or more kids aren’t in the full-time workforce, compared with only 9% who have no children.


Ely, who presented the survey’s findings to some 900 female alumni who gathered at HBS to celebrate the 50th anniversary of women’s admission on April 4-5, said that many women who had opted out to care for their children are struggling with their decisions. “A lot of the women I talked to at the summit said, ‘I feel that I am atrophying. I  made a decision to leave my job because I felt overwhelmed. I felt guilty. I felt like I couldn’t be good at anything.

“‘I wasn’t good at work and I wasn’t good at home. My husband was making enough money so I said, ok, I’m going to step out. And now I’ve been out and my kids are less reliant on me and I want to get back to work. I’m still a smart person and still committed and I want to do something but it’s really hard to get back in. Some of my technical skills are rusty. I haven’t used the newest version of Excel in five years. I’m sort of out of it and I have no network.'”

  • Tamius

    Go out and create your own value. Stop waiting for someone else to determine your fate.

  • Yes, one of the top priorities of Harvard Business School is “Inclusion.” The data in this article does amplify to level the playing field.

    Towards Shared Understanding of the Priorities of Harvard Business School

  • David G

    Factors Rated Extremely or Very Important To Career Advancement – I am surprised that “Being the very best at what I do.” is not on the list. It should be first if you want to advance.

  • I couldn’t agree more.

  • calm

    I’d encourage anyone reading this to look past the headlines and at the actual numbers. Sandberg was off in her prediction, but there are still only 56% of Gen X alumnae working full-time (given the chosen degree, one might assume, but I’m assuming, these women were career focused when they chose their degree program),

    More than that, a very important part of the quote from Sandberg is almost missed and addressed in a misleading manner: “…will be working for the guy you are sitting next to.” Full-time or part-time, “the guy” is “the boss” and having “significant leadership positions in their community work” is not the same as significant leadership roles in a corporation/business (financially and many would argue socially). These numbers don’t appear to be provided. I believe family, community and all work is of equal value, but it is an important distinction to make when discussing the topic.

  • Vicky

    I would like to point out that the results don’t reflect the reality because women who dropped out of workforce will be obviously less willing to admit it in the survey – even consider filling out the survey at all. Those who will fill out the survey will be most likely more A types wanting to share stories of their success. In addition, the total response rate for the survey was 25%… If I decided to become a stay home mom after getting a degree from HBS, I wouldn’t be very eager to fill out that survey either…

  • reallytired12

    Show me the proof of that. – 3/19/2013 — women are still making 9% less than men — disregard the tile of the article — “Men actually did outearn women overall in the 2013-2012 Dice Salary Survey, earning an average annual income of $95,929 compared with women’s $87,527.”

  • reallytired12

    You need to come to Milwaukee, WI area. There, you will find no problem getting a job as a male (preferably white or from India/Pakinstan (yes — I KNOW people from Indian and Pakistan are not interchangeable but apparently in Milwaukee hiring people can’t tell the difference). It’s not just a woman problem here — I have only known 2 black males and 2 black females in IT (operating systems/hardware-Windows/UNIX/mainframe) in the 17 years of consulting in Milwaukee.

  • No.

  • sunshine

    I agree with you and I’m sorry you experienced this bad leadership. Chauvinism and disregard for women are wrong and always will be wrong.

  • sunshine

    I know. I get that. But, we need to strive for some sort of ideal and work continuously to not allow past discrimination to give way to new forms of discrimination.

  • sunshine

    But, I also think hiring, promoting, accepting, etc. people who are less qualified but underrepresented casts doubt in the minds of more traditionally represented races/genders about the abilities of the underrepresented. I know I have had thoughts like “Is that person really the best for that job or did she just get that position because she’s a woman and my company is trying to promote more women.” Now, maybe I am being unfair in thinking that, but I can’t deny I have those thoughts.

    As Bruce Vann mentioned above, this whole situation is more complicated than simple prescriptions, and I get that, but I just think we’ve just swung too far to the other side of trying to correct past discrimination by unwittingly discriminating against more established groups in the name of “equality” “diversity” “inclusion” etc.

  • It’s not at all that simple. What you described is a good model principle but the issue is much more complicated in practice than that.

  • Renault

    (Cheetah, the quotes were there so you’d read it as a tongue-in-cheek comment.)

  • anon


  • BlueDevil11

    I have a background in healthcare and have invested in fertility clinics and treatment centers. I believe that in the future more of these highly successful and rich women will use surrogate mothers and artificial means to bear children. The clients in our facilities don’t want to deal with the hassel

  • cheetarah1980

    Wow! Interesting that you use the word normal as the antithesis of women, URMs, and LGBTQ. Just wow.

  • People tend to hire others who are like themselves, which inevitably perpetuates racial and gender under-representation when you live and work in a society that has historically excluded people of color and women from the work place.

    I wouldn’t say it’s active discrimination by individuals, but it is likely that white males are perceived as having talent/qualifications without question, while a person of color/woman will have more to prove.

  • Point taken. I read too much into your post.

  • sunshine

    Are more qualified women being passed over for less qualified men for CEO positions because of a “good ole boy” mentality? If so, that is wrong.

    But, I love how people throw out a statistic and act like that means there is clearly discrimination happening. Instead of saying, “we need more women, minorities, etc, etc. in the leadership positions in business,” why don’t we just say, “We need the most qualified/talented people in leadership positions regardless of their color, gender, sexual preference, etc”

  • Renault

    I wasn’t bemoaning the general status of white and Asian men, nor was I making a judgment on the merits of certain affirmative action type programs.

    Your earlier comment made it seem like overrepresented candidates (my “normals”) were not excluded from many of the benefits of minority events, however. They most certainly are.

  • Out of luck? 95%+ of CEOs in the fortune 500 are white males. The business world is still an old boys club. People look out for their own. What we should be sad about is that under-represented minorities still need the leg up.

    It’s laughable to say you’re out of luck. “Normals” have more than their fair share of the pie.

    See this article: 18 women are CEOs at fortune 500 companies…and somehow that’s worth hardly news.

  • Renault

    They might be allowed to show up to events, but when it comes to scholarship money and recruiting benefits (pre-MBA summer internships, etc.), we “normal” folks are out of luck.

  • Pru

    reallytired, I can empathize with you. I’m one of those early career women who started out at this big company and had a great upward career trend for 3 1/2 years. Then management changed and this new manager, I’m sorry to say was well known for his chauvinism and disregard for women. He would say stuff like ‘Oh why do women need to go for higher studies when all they’ll do after that is get married and stay at home?’

    He promoted a guy who joined after me, a guy that I had personally trained. It was humiliating to be taking orders from my trainee, especially since he had grown an ego of his own. From my conversations with other talented women who really want a great career, its taken for granted that women will never stick around to climb the corporate ladder, so why give them more responsibilities anyway? True there are many women who may want that for personal reasons, but I don’t think the rest of us should be stereotyped like that

  • sunshine

    I know everyone attends events like the Hispanic MBA job fair (or something like that), but I was not aware everyone could attend these pre-MBA events. If so, that is good, but, like you said, don’t really want to be the odd person there. However, my point is that I think they should be for everybody, like Deloitte’s Summit event. Or, have the companies do pre-MBA regional networking events for everyone who wants to attend; kind of like a broad, pre-MBA informational session that they do for on-campus recruiting. I just think that would be more fair and inclusive.

    And, though it maybe would’ve helped me get a scholarship or into more schools, I think I’ll stick with females 🙂

  • You CAN participate in these events actually. Men can be forte members I believe, straight allies can attend LGBT events, and white people can attend people of color events. You just need to decide if you feel comfortable being the odd man out (joke intended).

    Maybe you should “choose” to like males then. Sounds easy enough…

  • sunshine

    1) I am sorry for your experience. If what you wrote is true and you are more qualified for positions than male counterparts, then I agree it seems like discrimination–and that is undoubtedly wrong

    2) Your experience has been the opposite of what I have seen. I often think women can be promoted more quickly, at least at large companies, because companies are SO afraid of being viewed as discriminating against women, being sexist, etc.

    3) I think in the B-School world (I’ll be heading to a top 15 school this fall), it seems that women, certain minorities, and LGBT folks are given preferential treatment over white males, Indians, and Asians. For example, there are a variety of pre-MBA events, conferences etc. through companies like Citi, Bank of America, and organizations like Forte Foundation for women, certain minorities, LGBT, and veterans.

    Veterans are the only group that I am okay with giving special treatment to. If someone served our country and risked their lives for our freedom, then I’m fine with letting them have special events and opportunities. But, because I’m not an underrepresented minority, a male, and because I choose to like females, I can’t participate in these events. That seems wrong to me. Do you agree

  • sunshine

    I think your last sentence is actually an interesting thought.

    I get frustrated by school’s/employers feeling they must have an equal number of women, minorities, etc. I’d be interested to see the admissions statistics of men vs. women applicants to business school–not that GMAT, GPA, etc. are everything, but it would be interesting to see nonetheless.

    And, just for the record, I think it is also unfair when men enter female-dominated professions like nursing, teaching, etc. and they are promoted, given more pay, etc. than female counterparts who are more qualified than the men.

    When someone’s race or gender gets him/her accepted, hired, or promoted over another more qualified person, that is discrimination.

  • Shirley

    This definitely resonates with me – although I am a Chicago Booth (GSB) alumna. I dedicated time to raising my children (two now in college, one still in high school). I have done significant volunteer work over the years in addition to paid consulting work. I am at a great time in my life to kick my career back into gear. I am even finished with all the challenges of aging parents as they all have passed. I am looking for HOW to reenter and use my talents. Where do I find a “returnship”?

  • Paula Bruggeman

    I would file this Harvard study in the Annals of Unnecessary Research. Gee, do we really need a study to show that women of a certain age may take time off work to devote to their kids? Or to show us what factors are important for career advancement? You don’t need an MBA or a degree of any kind to figure out that people are individuals who have their own definitions of success and fulfullment. What I define as a successful life may be very different from the way you define it. I’d rather have an epitaph on my headstone that says “She was a great human being,” rather than “She exchanged having a life for nabbing the corner office.”

  • valo

    It focuses on Harvard because HBS is the school that attracts (at least in theory) the most ambitious, driven, and intelligent women. So if this is going on with the most ambitious of women at the school that provides the most opportunities for them right after the MBA, you can only imagine what happens elsewhere.

    Also, a couple of years ago I read another article similar to this one but focused on Chicago’s Booth School of Business (another top MBA) and the results where basically the same you are getting from this Harvard one: women drop to become mothers and by the time they try to go back to work (once their kids are school children) they had already missed opportunities that they will never be able to catch on again, unlike their male counterparts.

  • Ian

    Women outearn men in most major metro areas these days.

  • Ditto on other comments said. Why are women who choose to leave the workforce to raise a family perceived as being less successful than those who give up a family for their career or try to do both? Being a mom is in a lot of ways harder than being a consultant, financial analyst, or general manager and I admire those who give up a lucrative job in an executive office for taking care of their kids.

    The real heart of the issue shouldn’t be a negative slant toward women who leave the workforce to raise a family but toward unequal pay and disproportionate promotions between men and women in the workforce.

  • reallytired12

    I got my undergrad, graduate degrees and IT certifications while my children were in school. I worked full time from before they were born and continue to work full time now. I am an IT contractor and have had men with no degrees and/or certifications be hired by firms as employees over me. The real kicker has been when a large, global financial institution tried to hire on the male H1B visa coworker who I TRAINED. I was the only female on a team of 32 worldwide. I am currently at a large, global manufacturing firm and am the ONLY female on the server team of 23. I am tired of going that extra step — degrees, certifications, 24X7 on-call, and still being passed over but less qualified males. I really wish these companies would view me as something to be valued instead of wanting to kick me out like a thorn in their side. Really, I have yet to meet a guy in IT that voluntarily does the documentation that’s required. I believe that younger women come into the work force, get passed over for positions, then decide they may as well drop out and do something else.

  • Renault

    Every single woman I know who went to HBS (four who have graduated in the last five years) has dropped out of the work force entirely in order to have kids (I guess they all did pretty well in the marriage game, huh). The one current female student I know (an EC who just got engaged) will likely choose to follow this same path.

    Lauren, why did this article need to have such a slant against women who chose to prioritize family over work? Why not acknowledge that men and women are different, that they ::gasp:: might actually want different things out of life? I’d love to see an article that focuses on the fairness of allowing women to take up spots at top business schools when so few of them have any desire to work for more than two or three years post-MBA.

  • Tbbr2

    I agree with some previous complaints that this site has become too Harvard centric and lacks diversity in its coverage. This story of women opting out would be more representative if it includes other B-School data. This is a missed opportunity to cover an interesting topic.

  • sunshine

    I feel that in a lot of these articles about women in business, women getting MBA’s, pay for women, etc., there is this undercurrent that women are discriminated against in the workplace or that women who choose family/motherhood over climbing the corporate ladder are somehow not fulfilling their potential. I absolutely agree that a woman with equal qualifications and responsibilities as a male counterpart should be making equivalent compensation. However, concerning hours and work/life balance, it is impossible to give 60-80 hours a week to a job (what is probably required, at least for a while, to advance to high stages of leadership in a company) and really be there to raise a family. If a man or women chooses not to work that much, I think we should applaud them for prioritizing their families/children, but also be okay with the fact that by choosing this path they will not advance to the highest stages of leadership in a company or make as much money as others in the company.

    What would be unfair is to allow a man/woman to work far less hours or have less responsibilities than other counterparts in the company but then still pay them the same or promote them at the same rate as others who choose to take on the hours/responsibilities.