Career Vs. Family: A Continual Struggle For HBS Alumnae

Robin Ely of Harvard Business School

Robin Ely of Harvard Business School

The study allowed respondents to add written comments to the survey and some of the remarks collected by Harvard underline the angst felt by many women over the hot-button issue of career vs. family. “It’s a challenge to be a smart, driven, ambitious woman and still be a primary caregiver to one’s children,” wrote a full-time working mother in the study. “We are taught we can ‘have it all.’ But there are sacrifices that need to be made, and women often feel as if they are ‘failing’ or ‘not living up to potential’ when making those sacrifices.”


Ely said a number of women told the researchers how hard it was to stay employed full-time. One alum explained how after having a child, her boss no longer wanted to give her challenging assignments for fear she would leave. “She started to get bored and asked herself, ‘Why am I doing this?'” The alum explained: “Many organizations think women want less challenging work, off track (after they have a child). Actually, I was seeking more challenging work on some sort of track. A continual stream of new managers made it difficult to get that message sold again and again, despite my early successes in doing so.” Ultimately, she just left the company.

Yet another woman with a Harvard MBA told the school: “I have been surprised at the disconnect of some organizations between what they say—‘We value family and we appreciate that you’re a Mom who wants to be engaged with your kids’—and what they do: ‘Welcome to the firm. Now go travel for 16 days straight.’ Why is being a parent so counter to career success?”

Interestingly enough, when asked which factors are holding back women from advancing in their careers, 84% of the women acknowledged that it was “taking leaves or reducing work hours.” The second most cited impediment to career advancement for women? “Prioritizing family over work.” Some 82% of the female respondents in the study identified this reason (see table below.)


Beyond reconciling motherhood and careers, the survey suggests that external forces in the workplace are putting extra stress on women and perhaps subtly, or not so subtly, steering them toward alternative work options, such as part-time jobs and unpaid work. Both men and women in the HBS survey agree that some female-specific barriers limit women’s advancement in companies.  The majority of alums believe that a dearth of senior female role models, inhospitable corporate cultures and the lack of supportive environments hold women back in the workplace.

Predictably, though, women are much more likely than men to agree that a particular barrier negatively impacts their career opportunities. For instance, more than three-quarters (77%) of women feel that exclusion from informal networks limits their workplace success, while less than half of the men (49%) agree.  The same could be said for access to influential mentors and sponsors: 73% of women agree the lack of a powerful mentor limits female career advancement, while only 49% of the men say the same.

What’s Holding Back Women From Advancing In Their Careers

Factors rated “strongly agree” or ‘slightly agree”

Source: Harvard Business School

Source: Harvard Business School

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.