Rethink What You “Know” About High-Achieving Women

by Robin J. Ely, Pamela Stone and Colleen Ammerman
From the December 2014 Issue of Harvard Business Review

Rethink What You “Know” About High-Achieving Women

As researchers who have spent more than 20 years studying professional women, we have watched with interest the recent surge in attention paid to women’s careers, work-family conflict, and the gender gap in leadership. Among the most visible contributions to this public conversation have been Anne-Marie Slaughter’s 2012 Atlantic article “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” and Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, both of which ignited fierce public debate.

A lot of ink has been spilled on these topics, and both individuals and organizations have focused on gender gaps in business and other sectors. Can anything more be said? The 50th anniversary of the admission of women to Harvard Business School’s MBA program inspired us to find out—specifically, to learn what HBS graduates had to say about work and family and how their experiences, attitudes, and decisions might shed light on prevailing controversies.

We trained our analytical lens on these graduates for two reasons. First, attending a top-tier business school is a reasonable indication of high levels of achievement, talent, ambition, and promise, and by looking at men and women who graduated from the same school, we had a level playing field for gender comparisons. Second, HBS graduates are trained to assume leadership positions, so their attitudes and experiences—interesting in their own right—shape the policies, practices, and unwritten rules of their organizations.

Harvard MBAs value fulfilling professional and personal lives—yet their ability to realize them has played out very differently according to gender.

We surveyed more than 25,000 HBS graduates altogether; in this article we focus on MBAs, by far the largest proportion. Because we are primarily interested in the experiences of those who are still in the workplace, we report on Baby Boomers (ages 49–67), Generation X (ages 32–48), and Millennials (ages 26–31), also known as Generation Y. What our survey revealed suggests that the conventional wisdom about women’s careers doesn’t always square with reality.

Do Men and Women Want the Same Things?

The highly educated, ambitious women and men of HBS don’t differ much in terms of what they value and hope for in their lives and careers. We asked them to tell us how they defined success when they graduated from HBS and how they define it now, and they gave similar responses. Career-related factors figured prominently in their early definitions of success: Men and women mentioned job titles, job levels, and professional achievements at roughly the same rates.

When reflecting on how they define success today, both men and women cited career-related factors less often—unless they were Millennials, who mentioned those factors with about the same frequency across time. (This is unsurprising, given that only a few years have elapsed since they graduated, and most of their working lives are still ahead of them.) Today, however, family happiness, relationships, and balancing life and work, along with community service and helping others, are much more on the minds of Generation X and Baby Boomers. Two examples are illustrative. A woman in her forties, who left HBS about 20 years ago, told us: “For me, at age 25, success was defined by career success. Now I think of success much differently: Raising happy, productive children, contributing to the world around me, and pursuing work that is meaningful to me.” These sentiments were echoed by a man in his fifties, for whom success early on was “becoming a highly paid CEO of a medium-to-large business.” And today? “Striking a balance between work and family and giving back to society.” Indeed, when we asked respondents to rate the importance of nine career and life dimensions, nearly 100%, regardless of gender, said that “quality of personal and family relationships” was “very” or “extremely” important.

With regard to career importance, men and women were again in agreement. Their ratings of key dimensions of professional life, such as “work that is meaningful and satisfying” and “professional accomplishments,” were the same, and the majority said that “opportunities for career growth and development” were important to them, with women actually rating them slightly higher.

It simply isn’t true that a large proportion of HBS alumnae have “opted out” to care for children.

These results indicate that Harvard MBAs aimed for and continue to value fulfilling professional and personal lives. Yet their ability to realize them has played out very differently according to gender. Among those graduates who are employed full-time, men are more likely to have direct reports, to hold profit-and-loss responsibility, and to be in senior management positions. Setting aside those measures of success, since not everyone aspires to them, we found that women are less satisfied with their careers. Whereas about 50% to 60% of men across the three generations told us they were “extremely satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their experiences of meaningful work, professional accomplishments, opportunities for career growth, and compatibility of work and personal life, only 40% to 50% of women were similarly satisfied on the same dimensions.