When Dad’s Ambition Hurts Families
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When Dad’s Ambition Hurts Families

Ambitious men have always known this truth: a supportive wife advances your career.

Turns out, unsurprisingly, that the converse holds true for women: marrying someone who is unsupportive harms your career over time.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of admitting women, Harvard Business School conducted an extensive survey of gender disparities in career expectations among married HBS graduates. By surveying over 25,000 male and female HBS graduates, researchers found that HBS husbands achieved far greater success in their careers than HBS wives did. It had nothing to do with male vs. female ambition levels – both genders reported similar goals at graduation. And there was minimal impact from so-called “opt out” decisions, since only 11% of HBS mothers quit work to care for kids.

Instead, the HBS study showed that family-related expectations and sacrifices fell more heavily upon wives. As a result, married female HBS graduates did not achieve the same degree of professional accomplishments as their male counterparts.

The research teased out that the majority of male HBS graduates expected their careers to take precedence over their wives’ work. According to a recap in Slate, “It’s Not Your Kids Holding Your Career Back, It’s Your Husband,” the subtle, but powerful, difference in male vs. female expectations is what drives the longterm career differential.

“We found not just achievement and satisfaction gaps between men and women, but a real gap between what women expect as they look ahead to their careers and where they ultimately land. The men and women who graduate from HBS set out with much in common—MBAs, high ambitions, and preparation for leadership. Perhaps it’s time for more-candid conversations—at home, at work, and on campus—about how and why their paths unfold so differently.”

HBS wives reported expecting “equality” – not precedence — between their, and their spouses’, careers. In contrast, more than 70% of Gen X and boomer men (meaning men ages 32-67) said their careers were more important than their wives’ work; 86% said childcare was primarily their spouses’ responsibility. This difference had a huge impact over time, with men reporting significantly higher levels of P&L responsibility, number of direct reports, and senior management titles.

“Although a much larger proportion of women expected a traditional division of child care responsibilities than expected a traditional career priority, men and women sharply diverged on both dimensions,” the HBS study explains. “Women were more likely to have egalitarian expectations—and to see their expectations dashed.”

My own experience, as an MBA married to another MBA, is typical. My husband knew I loved my work and used to tease me about my penchant for working late Friday nights to get a jump on Mondays. Early in our marriage he freely admitted that I was the more ambitious half of our union. I assumed this meant he’d split the childcare and family responsibilities once we had children.

However, my husband assumed something totally different: that I’d somehow be able to maintain my career trajectory while filling a standard gender role of wifedom and motherhood. He believed, and at times insisted, that I be the one to take unpaid leave when our babies were born, that I be the parent to miss critical meetings whenever a child got sick, that I follow him to other cities when he got promoted regardless of the impact on my career.

His excuses were that men in his office had wives who didn’t work and who handled all the kid stuff solo. He also felt that because his job paid more, his time was worth more than mine. We never talked about the disparity – until we were both so furious that all we could do was fight about it.

“This disconnect exacts a psychic cost—for both women and men,” explains the HBS researchers. “Women who started out with egalitarian expectations but ended up in more-traditional arrangements felt less satisfied with how their careers have progressed than did women who both expected and experienced egalitarian partnerships at home. And in general, women tended to be less satisfied than men with their career growth—except for those whose careers and child care responsibilities were seen as equal to their partners’.”

Over a dozen years into the marriage, after I gave birth to three kids, handled every daycare and pediatrician emergency solo, and turned down several career moves that involved too much travel or too many late nights away from my children, my income had fallen to a fraction of my husband’s. I never regretted sacrificing my career and economic independence for my children’s well being. It was the only call I could ethically make, and raising three solid, happy kids has brought me immense satisfaction.

I wouldn’t counsel any woman setting out to juggle work and family today to strike a more career-oriented balance if it meant neglecting her kids. Instead, I’d tell her to look for a mate who truly understood her longterm goals. (And I’d certainly advise men of the wisdom of supporting ambitious wives.) However, the moral of the story is undeniable: women like me paid a huge price when we married people who didn’t value 50/50 career equity.

In my case – and I suspect in many other families – it was not just me who suffered over the long run. My husband, our kids, our parents, and I all paid dearly, because without equality our marriage eventually ended, in large part because I couldn’t overlook the fact that my husband was unable or unwilling to appreciate the sacrifices I made when I put his career, and our children’s happiness, before my own longterm work success. Career equality between us would have benefitted everyone in the long run, by financial as well as emotional measures.

The Harvard study did not attempt to quantify the cost families and children pay for the dominance of one family member’s ambition. Happiness and household stability are hard metrics to gauge. But perhaps we should try anyway.


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