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Discrimination, Bias or Choice – Defining Success through the Ages

Do you believe that prioritizing family over work is the top barrier to women’s career advancement? Let’s take a look at one answer to that question.

Fifty years ago, the Harvard Business School voted to admit women into the two-year MBA Program. Since that time, more than 12,000 women have graduated from the program. In fact, the MBA, Doctoral and Executive Education programs now have a 40% female make up.

In order to celebrate the 50th anniversary of women’s admission, Harvard endeavored on a bold project to create an extensive and inventive survey on their alumni to capture the arc of their lives and careers. They did this in hopes of gaining a better understanding of work, gender roles, and knowledge that would allow them to address the realities their students would have to confront in the future.

When questioned about the meaning of success:

A woman in her forties, who left HBS about 20 years ago, reported: “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? Success is, “Striking a balance between work and family and giving back to society.”

When respondents were asked 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.

Even though their responses were similar, reality played out quite differently between the male and female alumni. In fact, it was discovered that among those graduates who are employed full-time, men are more likely to have direct reports and to be in senior management positions. And in general, the HBS study found that women were 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.

And what about those women who left the workforce after having children? According to the HBS research:

The survey data and other research suggest that when high-achieving, highly educated professional women leave their jobs after becoming mothers, only a small number do so because they prefer to devote themselves exclusively to motherhood; the vast majority leave reluctantly and as a last resort, because they find themselves in unfulfilling roles with dim prospects for advancement.

Discrimination, Bias or Choice? Even with the plethora of research and opinion on this matter- I sometimes wonder whether it all really matters. Organizational culture and societal expectations can be significant pressures that impact the decisions women and men make when it comes to family and career. The time for policy and process is past. It’s time to leap into a discussion about the real challenges affecting men and women in the home and workplace, and the strategies we can use to overcome them. ‘Accelerating Change’ in 2016 is the theme for our annual International Women’s Day Conference. Both men and women are invited to join us as we look at the real issues preventing organizations and individuals achieving the gender balance we aspire to.

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