MBA Moms Most Likely to Opt Out

A new study finds MBA moms more likely than doctors or lawyers to stay home full-time

Shortly after graduating from Harvard University in 1988, Lydia Icke dived into a high-powered career as an investment banker at Citibank (C). An ambitious undergraduate, she snapped up one of the hardest jobs she could find, she said.

"And I was right, it was the hardest job I could find," said Icke, who later went on to Harvard Business School to get her MBA. "I worked all night and on the weekends and had all the tombstones [ads that appear in financial publications following a deal] to prove it."

Twenty years and four kids later, Icke is far removed from the pressure and deadline-driven world that she thrived on in back in her early 20s and 30s. A stay-at-home mom in Weston, Mass., her life now revolves around her four children, who range in age from six to 12. She has been home with her children for nearly a decade and doesn't regret the decision, she said. "I was having a really macho career, I was in the right place and now, I sort of feel like I have other fish to fry," she said.

Not an Unusual Story

Icke's career trajectory is typical of many of her fellow female undergraduates at Harvard who subsequently got their MBAs, according to a new study from UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business. A surprising number of these women have dropped out of the labor force to become stay-at-home mothers, according to Berkeley professors Catherine Wolfram and Jane Leber Herr. Their study, titled "Opt-Out Patterns Across Careers: Labor Force Participation Rates Among Educated Mothers," followed the career paths of nearly 1,000 women who graduated from Harvard between 1988 and 1991, using a rich set of biographical data culled from 10th and 15th anniversary reunion surveys.

By the time they are 15 years out of college, 28% of the Harvard women who went on to get their MBAs were stay-at-home moms, compared to only 6% of women who got medical degrees, the authors found. The study also looked at the career paths of Harvard women who became lawyers and found 21% chose to stay home with their children. Some of the women in the study managed to to strike a balance between family life and work. For example, the highest percentage of women in the study to work part-time were doctors, while women in business, especially those in finance and banking, were the least likely to have done so, the study showed.

The study highlights the challenges women with MBAs face as they try to balance family life and fast-paced careers in the business world. Female enrollment at 25 of the top U.S. full-time MBA programs hovers around 31%, according to a 2007 study by the Forte Foundation, a consortium of schools working to increase the number of women pursuing MBAs.

Long Hours and Mandatory Face Time

Keeping women with MBAs in the work force remains yet another pressing problem, complicated by the fact that many women graduate from business school right around the time they want to start a family. This becomes an even trickier proposition for women MBAs who work in fields like banking and consulting, which require long hours and mandatory face time, said Elissa Sangster, executive director of the Forte Foundation.

"There are plenty of women out there who have made it work, but they all have their own individual stories, whether it's a nanny, a stay-at-home dad, or working it out with an individual manager who happens to have gone through the same thing," Sangster said. "It's all very one-off. The infrastructure is not there in the business world, and that's what has yet to rise up in these industries."

The varying degrees of family-friendly options available in fields like medicine, law, and business is what prompted Wolfram, an associate professor of economics and member of the Haas Economic Analysis and Policy group, to look into the issue. Back in 2004, Wolfram—herself a Harvard alum from the class of 1989—was flipping through the notes her classmates had entered about their lives in the 15th anniversary reunion report. She noticed that a surprisingly high number of her classmates who had gone on to get advanced degrees were stay-at-home moms. "I was really pretty surprised by the number of women I had seen drop out," said Wolfram, a mother of two children. "I had gone through my own debate about whether working was the right thing for me."

Most Work Environments Not Family-Friendly

Intrigued by her classmates' decisions, she decided to track the career patterns of a larger group of Harvard women, trying to pinpoint the root of the divergent career paths these women embarked on once they started families. She was most curious to see whether the type of advanced degree the woman obtained later played a role in her decision to continue working or stay at home with her children, she said.

Her findings confirmed her suspicions that there was some aspect of the work environment driving these women out of the business world. Wolfram speculates that a surprisingly high number of women with MBAs had to leave their workplaces because the business work environment is not structured to be as family-friendly as the fields of medicine and law. For examples, doctors tend to have flexible schedules and might be able to work part-time hours more easily, a feat harder to accomplish in the business or nonprofit world, Wolfram said.

This was what Icke, the mother of four from Weston, ran up against when she initially tried to balance a career and a family. After graduating from Harvard Business School, she took on another high-powered job, this time as a management consultant at Bain. She worked full time until she had her first child and then went part-time, running the recruiting and training division, a position the company had created for her.

MBAs Not as Loyal as Doctors or Lawyers

The job was "manageable," but ultimately a dead end, with little hope of promotion, she said. By the time she had her second child, she was ready to become a stay-at-home mom. She has been out of the workforce for nearly a decade and is only just now thinking about reentering the workforce, she said.

"I think the big shift for me was I went from saying, 'Bring it on and give me the hardest thing you can find,' to 'Oh, no. I actually need to compartmentalize my work into a certain number of hours per day," she said. I didn't know how to do that, and there weren't too many role models."

Another factor in the disparity: Women who enter the business field may not have as strong a tie to their profession as women in other careers. Women with MBAs typically spend only two years in business school, a shorter amount of training time than doctors or lawyers. They also put less money into their schooling, spending $146,000 on average for an MBA, as opposed to $308,000 for an MD and $225,000 for a JD, Wolfram's study showed.

High-Earning Men Want Stay-at-Home Wives

And unlike the fields of medicine and law, each of which have very defined career trajectories, a career in the business world can sometimes feel more nebulous, the Forte Foundation's Sangster said. "When you get out of business school with a business degree, you're not a business person. You're a manager. Not everybody knows what a manager means, but everyone knows what a doctor and lawyer means," Sangster said. "The passion and connection you feel in your pursuit of a career may be very different for doctors and lawyers than people in business."

Another consideration is that many of these women are married to men who are just as ambitious as they are, said Joan Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California and an expert on work and family life issues.

Williams said she believes that what has been termed the "opt-out revolution," the notion that working women choose parenting over building their careers, is more complicated than meets the eye. Men who are in the upper ranks of their profession with stay-at-home-wives earn 30% more than men who are married to women who work, she said. Those men who want to reach the highest rungs of their career and earn the most money often need a stay-at-home wife to take care of all other aspects of their life, including raising a family, Williams said. "And since many women in business school marry those men, they end up being stay-at-home wives, regardless of their own vision of what they wanted from their careers," Williams said.

Finding the Right Balance

Of course, that's not the case for everyone. Cindi Frame, a member of the Harvard class of 1988 who received her MBA from Northwestern's Kellogg Graduate School of Management in 1995, holds the same graduate degree as her husband, David Frame, who also graduated from Kellogg in 1995. A former brand manager at Clorox (CLX), she has managed to work part time while raising her three children. She worked 15 to 20 hours a week managing a small company called Market Metrics, a market research firm for the hospitality industry. Her company now needs a full-time person for her job, but Frame said she is not certain she is ready to commit just yet to such a demanding schedule. It's a decision she will be wrestling with over the next few months, she said. "I still have a little one at home, so you don't want to all of a sudden feel like their whole childhood went by and you weren't there," she said. "It's hard to work even part time and find that balance. There are always tradeoffs."

Business Exchange related topics:Women in Business SchoolWork-Life BalanceGlass CeilingHigher EducationCareer Change

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