Saturday, December 20, 2014

The incompleteness of "leaning in"

Joshua Fershee has previously noted that men and women experience careers in business differently.  If women want to get to the top, they often have a longer haul than men.

Previous research has also shown that women are evaluated negatively for seeking raises (an attitude that Microsoft's CEO inadvertently seemed to endorse) and that (at least in the tech industry) performance reviews of women tend to be more critical than those of men, and include more personality-based criticism.

Now a new study in the Harvard Business Review shows that men and women have very different expectations regarding how they balance their careers and their personal lives when they graduate from Harvard Business School – and men’s expectations are more accurate than women’s.

According to the study, in general, men who graduate from HBS expect their careers will take precedence over their spouses’ careers – and they turn out to be right.  Women expect that their careers will have equal importance – and their hopes are dashed.  (It should be noted that men’s responses differ along racial lines; men of color tend to expect a more equal division of career precedence). 

The authors conclude:

Whatever the explanation, this disconnect exacts a psychic cost—for both women and men. 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’. Conversely, men who expected traditional arrangements but found themselves in egalitarian relationships were less satisfied with their career growth than were their peers in more-traditional arrangements, perhaps reflecting an enduring cultural ideal wherein men’s work is privileged. Indeed, traditional partnerships were linked to higher career satisfaction for men, whereas women who ended up in such arrangements were less satisfied, regardless of their original expectations.

Which is why I watched this video made by Columbia Business School students with both amusement and sadness:


(Warning:  The video contains explicit language and sexual innuendo.  Perhaps that's more of an advertisement than a warning?  Anyway, yeah, the lyrics are pretty explicit so, you know, go in with that expectation.)

Anyway, the basic theme of the video is that the women proclaim that they will not tolerate sexism and double standards, they will not tolerate being told that they should be nicer or less abrasive, and they will still succeed in business regardless of the obstacles placed in their path.  I appreciate and applaud the attitude and determination, but the reality is – as the HBS study concludes – it’s not simply about women’s determination and goals.  So long as women work within institutional structures that place higher values on male contributions - when even professors are more likely to offer guidance and mentoring to white males over women and people of color - women can be assertive and produce high quality work, but their individual determination not to back down in the face of criticism won't solve the problem.

Ann Lipton | Permalink


Thanks for sharing all this, Ann. It's a sobering reality that the study and the video portray. Indeed, the video is both amusing and sad. Culture change can be slow, and in this area--women's advancement in the professional workforce in business--sometimes seems nearly impossible. But continued highlighting of the related issues for men and women through this post is a great start.

Posted by: joanheminway | Dec 22, 2014 9:33:34 PM

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