Another day, it seems, another study about the gender gap in careers. Over the last week, Gallup told us women are more pessimistic about the job market.
New Bloomberg Businessweek data showed us that female MBAs reported an average of nearly $15,000 less in expected annual pay than men did. And research by a Canadian duo tells us the pay gap might have something to do with women working disproportionately for older men.
Can anything more be said?
That's the exact question asked by three co-authors in a new article that published on Tuesday in the Harvard Business Review. Their answer: a very clear yes. And to arrive at that conclusion, they put to work a very, very large sample of well-educated, ambitious men and women.
Harvard Business School professor Robin Ely, Hunter College professor Pamela Stone and Colleen Ammerman, assistant director of the Gender Initiative at HBS, set out to examine what more than 25,000 male and female HBS graduates had to say about work, careers and family. In doing so, they found sharply different levels of career satisfaction for men and women, they found professional and familial expectations that were at odds with each other, and they found data that could help debunk some conventional myths about why the gender gap persists.
To start, the study unearthed a statistically significant difference in how many men versus women were happy in their careers. For instance, 59 per cent of the men said they found their work meaningful, compared with just 49 per cent of women. Exactly half of the men in the study said they were in jobs with opportunities for career advancement, compared with just 41 per cent of women.
Meanwhile, the researchers also asked married male and female graduates what they had expected about their careers when they finished their MBAs, and how that compares to what they actually experienced in the years since.
For men, reality turned out to exceed expectations: Sixty-one per cent of the men, for example, said that when they graduated from HBS, they expected their careers to take precedence over their partner's - yet that turned out to be true for 70 per cent of them instead. Meanwhile, just 25 per cent of women said they expected to be in a traditional arrangement where their spouse's career came first. Thirty-nine per cent, however, found that to be the reality.
A similar trend was found when it came to child care. For instance, 78 per cent of the men believed their spouse would be the primary caregiver in their marriage, and that actually turned out to be the case for 86 per cent. For women, visions of equal parenting responsibilities quickly vanished, and even more women than expected became the one shouldering child care responsibilities.
The study also was able to poke holes in some of the common theories about why the gender gap persists - such as the ideas that too many women "opt out" of the workforce after having families, or take breaks in their careers that cause them to fall behind. Neither issue turned out to be much of a factor for these ambitious, well-positioned women. Only 11 per cent of the HBS alumnae surveyed were out of the workforce and caring for children full-time. (For women of colour, the figure was even lower, at just 7 per cent.)
The researchers also looked for a link between those who had taken a long career break, gone part-time, limited travel or done any other traditional "mummy track" moves and those who hadn't made it to top management. They found none. "In fact," the study reports, "both men and women in top management teams were typically more likely than those lower down the hierarchy to have made career decisions to accommodate family responsibilities."
So why is the gender gap so persistent? The study suggests that companies need to do more than simply institute "family-friendly" policies. They need to level the playing field for women, and have more candid conversations about men's and women's roles as well as the judgments they face.
If that answer still leaves you with questions, just wait. It won't be long before there's another study examining this perennial issue.