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Study Finds Corporate Barriers, Not Family Pressures, Impact Female HBS Grads' Careers

By Eva S. Monroe and Kyle E. O' Hara, Contributing Writers

The Harvard Business Review published the results of a survey-based study this month indicating that limited correlation exists between the career expectations of Harvard Business School graduates and the gender gap in senior management positions. The study concluded that corporate structures, rather than mothers’ choices, leave women with limited options to balance home and work lives.

The study was conducted by HBS Professor Robin J. Ely, Pamela Stone of Hunter College, and HBS Gender Initiative Assistant Director Colleen C. Ammerman. The researchers found that, of the 25,000 surveyed HBS alumni, men and women had similar career ambitions when joining the workforce. Male respondents, however, were more likely to feel as though their goals were met than their female counterparts, the study found.

“We wanted to understand how our women graduates are faring, especially in light of other research showing that women are under-represented in leadership positions,” Ely wrote in an email. “We were especially interested in how alumni navigate the complexities of work and the rest of life.”

Contrary to what the study called “conventional wisdom,” most of the surveyed women’s careers were not sidetracked because they prioritized family over advancing in the workplace, the study found. Instead, women who left their jobs after having children did so because “they [found] themselves in unfulfilling roles with dim prospects for advancement” or otherwise limited in their career options.

“Both men and women need to participate equally at home,” said Kathleen L. McGinn, an HBS professor who focuses on the role of gender in the workplace and in negotiations. “Women and men want the same thing…[but] organizations are set up for high-level positions [occupied by] people who have a whole family support structure, which is more likely to be men than women.”

McGinn added that this study was particularly relevant because it pulled from a large body of evidence and corroborated smaller studies and generally accepted anecdotes.

Ely wrote that the researchers hope their study will inform public understanding and shift focus from women’s individual decisions regarding family to how gender stereotypes reinforce structural hurdles women face in the workplace.

“Our women alums are less satisfied with their careers than men are, but we would say that workplace disappointments and shortcomings are…to blame,” Ely wrote.

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