The hit TV series ‘Mad Men’ is fraught with prodigious boozing, classy apparel, and overt sexism. It’s set in the 1950s, where women are dolled-up secretaries or accommodating housewives, and men are the primary breadwinners. But ‘Mad Men’-esque gender roles, which see women assuming the lion’s share of childcare responsibilities, did not die with the 1950s, the 1960s, or even the 1990s.
A study of 5,282 Harvard Business School MBAs found that imbalanced gender roles are still alive and well today and no doubt keep women from leaning in and breaking through. The researchers surveyed HBS MBAs, ranging from age 26 through 67, at graduation and later in life on everything from child-rearing expectations to career goals to job satisfaction. Their results were published in the December 2014 issue of the Harvard Business Review.
The researchers found that most male MBAs expected their careers to take priority over their partner’s–an assumption that played out in most cases. Women graduates, on the other hand, mistakenly believed their careers would be equal in importance to their partner’s and were often sorely disappointed.
86% OF MALE MBAS SAY THEIR PARTNER IS THE PRIMARY CHILD REARER
More specially, 61% of men in Generation X (32–48) and 56% of males in the Baby Boomer age bracket (49–67) expected their careers to take precedence. Their expectations were exceeded. Male Gen Xers’ careers took priority 70% of the time, and 74% of Boomer males enjoyed career priority. More than three-quarters of male graduates also predicted that their partners would assume most child-care responsibilities. In reality, 86% of males in both generations pawned off primary child-rearing responsibilities on their partner.
Even more surprising, the pro-pot, pro-same-sex marriage Millennials seem to shed some of their progressivism when it comes to gender roles. In other words, the era of Don and Betty Draper isn’t over yet. Half of Millennial men surveyed expect their careers to take priority over their partner’s occupation. Slightly more than a quarter of female MBAs surveyed (26%) expect their careers to take second-tier status. It gets worse with childcare. Among Millennials, some 66% of men and 42% of women expect female grads to take primary responsibility for raising the kids. It’s still too early to gauge how reality plays out for this generation, but as the study authors conclude, “…if previous generations are any indication, change won’t occur soon.”
However, lead author and HBS professor Robin Ely downplays the ‘Mad Men’ reference in terms of who gets to bring home the bacon. “I don’t think women expect men’s careers to take precedence, but they encounter a workplace that creates that,” she says. “I think the thing that does persist is this cultural expectation, that both men and women buy into, about who is the best caretaker of children. If there is anything that’s persisting from the 50s … that seems to be thing that people are holding onto, rather than men’s careers taking priority.”
MEN REPORT HIGHER CAREER SATISFACTION ACROSS GENERATIONS
All of this would be a moot point if women grads were cheerfully clocking out of their careers and embracing motherhood. But that’s simply not the case, according to the Harvard study. Women across all three generations were far less satisfied than their male counterparts. Some 50% to 60% of men surveyed were “extremely satisfied” or “very satisfied” across four career metrics (meaningful work, professional accomplishments, career opportunities, and work-life balance), while only 40% to 50% of women were similarly satisfied. It’s a classic case of unrealized expectations: Women leave B-school with high ambitions to carve out successful careers, end up shouldering child-rearing responsibilities, and ultimately feel unfulfilled professionally.
But Ely is quick to squelch the husband-bashing impulse inherent in such findings. “We have to be mindful of the fact that men tend to have the advantage in terms of salary and promotion, and so that kind of reinforces the fact that men’s careers tend to be primary,” she says. “It’s a confluence of factors, but I don’t think that its husbands holding their wives back.”
The study authors further suggest that, contrary to conventional wisdom, women aren’t “opting out” to care for children. Rather, Ely says the current business climate is pushing female graduates out, often against their will. These uber-motivated women are leaving as a last resort when they find themselves saddled with unfulfilling roles and a narrower set of opportunities, she says.
‘MAKE YOUR PARTNER A REAL PARTNER’
However, the evidence here is murky. The researchers point out that only 11% of Gen X and Boomer women are out of the workforce to care for children full-time. But that statistic overlooks those women accepting less demanding roles or declining promotions. Moreover, the authors point out that 28% of Gen X and 44% of Baby Boom women took a break of more than six months to care for children, compared with only 2% of men. That alone suggests that women are, in fact, “opting out” more than men. It may just be a case of semantics–after all Harvard researchers undoubtedly don’t want to paint their alumnae as career housewives. However, glossing over the fact that women may willingly sideline their careers to care for children certainly isn’t doing females any favors either.
When pressed, Ely holds firm. “I don’t think we can conclude that women have opted out,” she says. “We could conclude that women may find themselves in less demanding jobs, less powerful jobs, but I don’t think we can conclude that they’ve decided to move to those jobs.”
So what to do? Rather than issuing yet another call for women MBAs to buckle down and stay late, the researchers suggest that spouses should step up: “‘Lean in’ is a rallying cry for women trying to navigate the workplace, but our survey results make us think that Sheryl Sandberg’s other slogan—’Make your partner a real partner’—is every bit as crucial, and perhaps more apt for young, achievement-oriented women who aspire to have meaningful, fully valued career,” they write.
Perhaps more significantly, the authors echo Anne-Marie Slaughter’s call for institutional change in the workplace. “Companies need to take a long hard look at how they work and decide whether those norms are really in the interest of the organization,” Ely says. Everyone can benefit from a more level playing field and more progressive policies, she contends. “This demand for 24-7 availability is untenable, and I’m not convinced it’s in an organization’s best interest. But I am convinced it’s not in the employees’ best interest, and that makes it hard for both men and women to have satisfying career and family lives.”