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.'”

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