If Your Career Stalled Because of Your Husband, Call It Like It Is

Of all the people you’d expect could nail down this whole work-life balance thing, Harvard Business School MBAs would easily make the short list—smart, ambitious, well-educated people who, if nothing else, have the money to fix the problem of gender inequity when it comes to having kids. But no.

In a study of 25,000 HBS grads spanning a few decades, authors Robin Ely, Pamela Stone and Colleen Ammerman found that, although the men and women interviewed wanted the same things in terms of professional success and work-life balance over their careers, those outcomes looked a helluva lot different for women than it did for men, and it will surprise no one that the men fared better. As Jessica Grose notes over at Slate:

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 color—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.

It gets worse. Over half of male grads expected their wives’ careers to take a backseat to theirs, while just 7 percent of women thought they’d take the lead. Saddest of all: Most women went into business school expecting they’d have egalitarian partnerships where both careers were valued. Writes Grose:

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.

Cool fact: The study results were published in line with the 50th anniversary of women’s admission into the MBA program at Harvard. Every time I read stuff like this—that women and men think they have equal marriages, but the reality is the woman does more work while her career suffers—I think again, as I often do, about Stephanie Coontz’s op-ed in the NYT from 2013 titled “Why Gender Equality Stalled,” which lays out a lot of the reasons this is still our current reality.

Coontz wrote, in part citing work from the same Pamela Stone who co-authored the study we’re discussing here, that most couples want egalitarian relationships (72 percent, in a recent poll). They expect to share the demands of work and family life together, but increased work demands collide with general sexism in the form of lack of family friendly policies, like paid leave and affordable childcare. Add to this the motherhood penalty, as well as the pay gap, and it often means that such progressive attitudes about equal relationships rarely amount to a hill of beans in this crazy, shitty world.

Coontz said, in two key paragraphs you should commit to memory:

When people are forced to behave in ways that contradict their ideals, they often undergo what sociologists call a “values stretch” — watering down their original expectations and goals to accommodate the things they have to do to get by. This behavior is especially likely if holding on to the original values would exacerbate tensions in the relationships they depend on.


When you can’t change what’s bothering you, one typical response is to convince yourself that it doesn’t actually bother you. So couples often create a family myth about why they made these choices, why it has turned out for the best, and why they are still equal in their hearts even if they are not sharing the kind of life they first envisioned.

Family myth! Nice way of putting it. In other words, dad makes more money or is viewed as more talented, promotable, destined for greatness; kids come along; mom’s career takes a backseat. Together, mom and dad serve up a hot, steaming, smiling plate of MBA-approved bullshit for dinner, and it tastes delicious, and in the end nothing changes. If everyone already thinks things are as equal as they can be, why would those husbands push for better leave policies at work?

So what is to be done? Back at Slate, Grose notes that many female CEOs have husbands who function more like the wives of the past, not working and focusing on kids so the women can focus on careers (or in one case, a lady CEO married a man 20 years older whose career was ending as hers was picking up). Grose cites writer Linda Hirshman’s controversial advice to marry down, that, “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.”

Ah yes, marrying down. What men have done for ages, except it wasn’t called that because for most of history women have never been expected to be anything but attractive and docile in the first place. The problem with this thinking about women marrying down is that lots of women “marry down” already, and still make less than their husbands, even if they have more degrees. Also, in my opinion, “marrying down” is among the most unsavory concepts in existence, because it places a person’s value entirely on education and earning power or looks or status, which has almost nothing to do with whether they will be a good person to hitch your wagon to for a lifetime, much less take care of a kid with you.

Is this the best we can do? Can two ambitious people not sort this problem out any better? Coontz noted that it’s not personal attitudes getting in the way, but when I think about lagging policies, the pay gap, mommy-tracking, marrying down, and the many individual couples where it appears equal but the mom is the one running herself ragged doing all the shit, all I see are terrible attitudes—behind every lack of legislation, every bit of pay discrepancy, and yes, every individual couple who chooses to, yet again, let mom sit another round of life success out because that’s just how it seems to need to be.

It’s one thing for two people to honestly negotiate who gets to be the most satisfied and nurtured by their career with constraints beyond their control—more of that, please, everybody. But when every study shows it’s near impossible to do that, and that men are near universally leading the results in these polls, it might be time to stop serving up so much well-intentioned bullshit and stop calling this egalitarian. After all, how does anything change if we’re all believing our own myths?

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