Leaning elsewhere: Are Harvard B-school women opting out?

April 12, 2013: 8:45 AM ET

A new study of HBS alumnae shows that female grads are leaving full-time work at surprising rates, sacrificing their careers for motherhood. But it's not necessarily what it seems.

By Lauren Everitt

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Harvard Business School class of 1995

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Harvard Business School class of 1995

(Poets&Quants) -- When Sheryl Sandberg returned to Harvard Business School for a talk in 2011, her pointed answer to a question from an audience of MBAs drew stunned silence. "If current trends continue," Sandberg said, "15 years from today, about one-third of the women in this audience will be working full-time and almost all of you will be working for the guy you are sitting next to."

It turns out that the Facebook (FB) COO's gloomy prediction has not materialized. A new study by Harvard Business School published on April 4 shows that only 10% of Generation X alumnae (ages 31 to 47) are at home caring for their children full time. Some 70% of all women alumni from HBS are in the paid workforce, and 56% work full time.

"She is very far off the mark," says Robin Ely, senior associate dean for culture and community. "There is this image of these women that is not positive. People think they get these MBAs. They have taken a seat from a man and then they go off, get married, and not do anything. But it's just not their experience."

The number that Sandberg, an HBS alumnus, quoted two years ago and in her recently published book, Lean In, comes from an earlier informal study culled from reunion data some 15 years ago. Harvard's new research is the most systematic study ever done of business school alumnae. Dubbed the "Life and Leadership After HBS" survey, the project addresses everything from employment and child-caring responsibilities to personal satisfaction with faith and wealth. The study includes responses from 3,786 women and 2,655 men, a response rate of 25% from the 25,810 who were surveyed.

The full results won't be available until later this year, but the school shared key findings around gender to commemorate the admission of women into the two-year MBA program 50 years ago. Only eight women were enrolled in Harvard's first full-time MBA class. Now, women make up 40% of the student body.

Ely says she regularly confronts the dismal estimates surrounding women dropping out of the workforce. On a recent alumni visit to northern California, Ely says she was horrified to hear a female alum say "' 'I can't believe that 15 years out, only 25% of the women are working.' But after all is said and done, only 10% of women are at home full-time caring for their kids," says Ely. "And of the people currently at home with kids, we asked if they plan to go back to work. Only 3% said no, 11% were unsure, and 86% said yes."

Also surprising, adds Ely, was the fact that among women not employed full-time, many were working part-time jobs that average 25 hours in a typical week, and the vast majority (three-fourths) are engaged in pro bono and volunteer efforts. Thirteen percent of Gen X women are working part-time, compared with only 2% of men. Some 63% of the women report regular or significant volunteer commitments. Alumnae who care for children full-time are even more committed to pro bono work, with 67% reporting substantial volunteer activity.

Some may take a less optimistic view of the study's results, however. Ely's research found, for example, that some 43% of female graduates from the Boomer generation (ages 48-66) are no longer working full-time, compared with only 28% of men. The discrepancy is more pronounced among Gen X women. Some 26% of women in this age group have left the full-time workforce, five times more than their male peers -- but well below Sandberg's estimate. The study found that the more children alumnae have, the more likely they are to nix full-time jobs. A whopping 37% of Gen X women with two or more kids aren't in the full-time workforce, compared with only 9% who have no children.

Ely, who presented the survey's findings to some 900 female alumnae gathered at Harvard to celebrate the 50th anniversary of women's admission on April 4-5, says that many women who had opted out to care for their children are struggling with their decisions. "A lot of the women I talked to at the summit said, 'I feel that I am atrophying. I  made a decision to leave my job because I felt overwhelmed. I felt guilty. I felt like I couldn't be good at anything.'"

The study, which allowed respondents to add written comments, underlines the angst many women feel over work-life balance issues. "It's a challenge to be a smart, driven, ambitious woman and still be a primary caregiver to one's children," wrote a full-time working mother in the study. "We are taught we can 'have it all.' But there are sacrifices that need to be made, and women often feel as if they are 'failing' or 'not living up to potential' when making those sacrifices."

One alum explained how, after having a child, her boss no longer wanted to give her challenging assignments for fear she would leave. "She started to get bored and asked herself, 'Why am I doing this?'" The alum explained: "Many organizations think women want less challenging work [after they have a child]. Actually, I was seeking more challenging work on some sort of track." Ultimately, this alum left the company.

When asked which factors are holding back women from advancing in their careers, 84% of female respondents acknowledged that it was "taking leaves or reducing work hours." The second most cited impediment to career advancement for women? "Prioritizing family over work." Some 82% of the female respondents in the study identified this reason.

Beyond reconciling motherhood and careers, the survey suggests that external forces in the workplace are putting extra stress on women and steering them toward alternative work options, such as part-time and non-profit work. The majority of alums believe that a dearth of senior female role models, inhospitable corporate cultures, and the lack of supportive environments hold women back in the workplace.

Harvard's MBA alumnae want much more out of their careers than they are getting. Less than half of the women under the age of 67 report being satisfied with their professional accomplishments or opportunities for career growth. Satisfaction skews the opposite way for men, most of whom agree that their work is meaningful and satisfying.

In the study, Harvard also asked alums what their definition of success was when they left Harvard Business School versus now. One male respondent said when he graduated with his MBA, his definition of success was "becoming someone who is an expert at bringing new innovations to the marketplace."

His definition now? "Being married with two kids, I can no longer define success only from a career accomplishment perspective. Success to me is summed up in the following equations: Family money earned is greater than family earning spent. Dad's effort equals mom's effort. Helping others is better than complaining about others. Family happiness is greater than anything else in the world."

Another male alum summed up his definition of success before and after with three-word answers: "When he left HBS," says Ely, it was 'money, money, money.' His definition of success now is 'balance, balance, balance.'"Ely believes that organizations need to be open to recruiting and hiring women who have opted out of full-time work but now want to resume their careers. "A 20-year-old woman has a life expectancy of 100 today," she says, quoting an earlier speaker who came to Harvard Business School during the kickoff week of the 50th anniversary commemoration. "And so if she steps out of the workforce when her kids are a certain age, she has a huge amount of time for her to come back to work. We really need to reconceive careers."

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