Why Even Really Well-Educated Women Can’t Get Ahead at Work

No, it’s not because they have kids.

(Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images)

Nov 24, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Nicole Pasulka is a writer and reporter who lives in New York City. She has written for Mother Jones, BuzzFeed, The Believer, and the New York Observer.

There’s no doubt that the glass ceiling is real. Among Generation Xers (people ages 32 to 48) and baby boomers (49 to 67 years old) who went to Harvard Business School, women are less likely than men to be in senior management positions. A common explanation for why women lag behind men when ascending the corporate ladder is that they take time off to raise kids. They are then either punished by bosses or left behind by male peers who don’t temporarily leave the workforce.

But a new survey suggests it’s the walk down the aisle—not into the delivery room—that holds women back.

Women’s performance and status at work don’t stagnate because of kids but because their jobs often take a backseat to their spouses’ careers, the survey of 25,000 Harvard Business School graduates ages 26 to 67 suggests. The research was published last week in the Harvard Business Review.

The researchers found no link between taking time off to raise a family and a woman’s “lesser position in management.” Instead, nearly three-quarters of Gen X and baby boomer men who went to Harvard Business School said that their careers took precedence over their wives’ work. Of Gen X and baby boomer women who went to Harvard Business School, 40 percent reported that their spouses’ careers took priority over their own. (Only 20 percent had expected this would be the case when they graduated.)

“Women were more likely to have egalitarian expectations—and to see their expectations dashed,” the study’s authors wrote.

But while women were entering the workforce and their relationships with the notion of equal standing, men were not. A strong majority of men expected that their careers would be a priority over their spouses’, and the survey found that men in both age groups are more satisfied professionally than their female peers.

These responses suggest that when two ambitious, well-educated people hooked up, there was a decent chance they didn’t initially see eye to eye on work-life balance. The study also found that when both parents work, women end up doing most of the housework and chores. This is consistent with an earlier study that discovered almost half of working women but only 20 percent of men do housework when they get home from a day on the job. Women who are mothers and work full-time spend a week and a half more time on household chores each year than do their male partners.

These new insights are surprising, but there are still a lot of unknowns.

More than 83 percent of respondents said they were married—an overwhelming majority. The survey authors said they assumed that most of the respondents were in heterosexual relationships, but they couldn’t be certain because they didn’t collect information on sexual orientation. At this point, it’s not clear if gay couples have a more egalitarian work-life balance than do straight couples. The researchers also don’t know why, if so many women expect their jobs to have equal standing in their relationships, men’s careers take precedence.