Intelligent working women: Leaning back?

By Kaitlin Louie | Small Business

Inspired by such prominent figures as Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer, many women are pursuing higher education with the aim of advancing their careers and becoming influential individuals in the business world. In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, women comprised nearly half of all business degree conferrals at the bachelor’s (49 percent) and master’s (46 percent) levels in the 2010-2011 academic year. Similarly, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council [PDF], 106,800 women took the GMAT during 2010-2011, up significantly from the 89,931 women who took this MBA admissions test during 2001-2002.

These statistics suggest a strong interest in higher education and business among women. Judging from popular media, including Sheryl Sandberg’s new book “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead” and Warren Buffet’s statements in Fortune advocating for more female leaders in business, it appears that the nation has made strides towards increased professional empowerment for women.

However, a startling finding by Joni Hersch, a professor of law and economics at Vanderbilt University, casts some doubt on this idea. According to Hersch’s study, which is to be published in the Review of Economics in the Household, married mothers with MBAs who received their education from institutions such as Harvard, Princeton and Yale have a full-time employment rate of only 35 percent, while those who studied at less selective institutions have a full-time employment rate of 66 percent. In other words, full-time employment of women with graduate degrees in business is surprisingly low, and women who graduate from (what Hersch calls) elite institutions are significantly less likely to work full-time than their peers from less selective institutions.

Such unexpected results call for a further investigation of the expectations we hold for working women, the goals they set for themselves, and the realities they face in the workplace and the home.

Words from Top Women in Business: Wise, Yet Unrealistic?

In an excerpt from her book featured on TIME, Sandberg urges women not to shortchange their career goals prematurely for the idea of having a family. She writes:

  • “From an early age, girls get the message that they will likely have to choose between succeeding at work and being a good wife and mother. By the time they are in college, women are already thinking about the trade-offs.”
  • “[W]omen rarely make one big decision to leave the workforce. Instead, they make a lot of small decisions along the way. … Often without even realizing it, women stop reaching for new opportunities.”
  • “By the time a baby actually arrives, a woman is likely to be in a drastically different place than she would have been had she not leaned back.”

According to Sandberg, women should work towards their career aspirations without taking potential roadblocks into account, and only address these roadblocks when they actually materialize:

  • “We must not ignore the real obstacles women face in the professional world, from sexism and discrimination to a lack of flexibility, access to child care and parental leave. But women can dismantle the internal barriers holding us back today.”
  • “The hard work of generations before us means that equality is within our reach. We can close the leadership gap now. … If we push hard now, this next wave can be the last wave. In the future there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.”

But is her perspective realistic?

In Anne-Marie Slaughter’s review of “Lean In,” published in The New York Times, she praises Sandberg’s optimism and drive, but also points out that the practical realities most working women face cannot simply be surmounted by internal motivation:

  • “[F]or the 229 missing female Fortune 500 leaders, as well as the hundreds of thousands of women who should be occupying lower-level leadership positions but aren’t, the problem is not leaning back but encountering a tipping point, a situation in which what was once a manageable and enjoyable work-family balance can no longer be sustained — regardless of ambition, confidence or even an equal partner.”

This hard fact is one that Hersch’s study highlights. Her research discovered that the very women who seem to be in ideal positions for career advancement are in fact opting out of the full-time workforce:

  • In an article covering Hersch’s research, Life Inc. reports that in 2010, only 70 percent of female graduates from (what Hersch considers) the nation’s top-tier universities were employed. In addition, only about 45 percent of married mothers from elite universities were employed full time that year, compared with the 57 percent of married mothers from the least selective universities.
  • According to Bloomberg Businessweek, Hersch’s study found that married mothers who earned an MBA from a top-tier institution were a full 30 percent less likely to hold a full-time job than female graduates from less selective MBA programs.

Hersch notes that this trend is concerning because “[e]lite workplaces, like Fortune 500 companies, prefer to hire graduates of elite colleges.” In other words, if women with graduate degrees from elite institutions are opting out of the workforce, companies cannot harness their potential, and these women in turn cannot maximize their influence in their professional field.

The Reasons Behind the Disparity

As Hersch explains in her report, the disparities she discovered in the labor market activity of female graduates from selective and non-selective schools were surprising to her, and her research did not give her clear reasons for this phenomenon.

“Graduates of elite institutions are likely to have a greater range of workplace options as well as higher expected wages than graduates of less selective institutions, which would suggest that labor market activity would be higher among such women,” she states.

While many people in the media call out a lack of workplace flexibility as a contributor to women’s lower participation in the labor force, Hersch believes that flexible work schedules alone will not actually help resolve the issue of low labor market activity among women with elite educations.

“The flexibility alone doesn’t explain it,” she told Life Inc., citing the fact that female graduates of elite institutions are in fact more likely to receive accommodations in their work schedule.

What does not appear to be a reason for women’s lower labor market activity is a desire to leave the workforce. Indeed, a Pew Research Center poll published in 2013 showed that:

  • In 2012, a full 32 percent of mothers with non-adult children reported wanting to work full time.
  • Yet only 16 percent of all adults polled believe that a mother with young children should work full-time.
  • Forty-two percent of all adults polled said that a mother working part time is the ideal situation.
  • One-third of adult respondents felt that mothers of young children should not be in the workforce at all.

These numbers are an indication that the very gender-based prejudices Sandberg outlines in her book are alive and well, and may be combating even the strongest women’s desires to fulfill their professional potential.

The Solution: More Flexibility?

As the studies and statistics listed above show, the issue of work-life balance (or lack thereof) amongst professional women is a complicated issue that would need multiple solutions to address. While granting mothers a flexible schedule does help in many cases, female business leaders like Sandberg and Marissa Mayer believe that, to truly advance, sacrificing family time to some extent is inevitable.

“Having it all. Perhaps the greatest trap ever set for women was the coining of this phrase,” Sandberg writes in her book. “No matter what any of us has — and how grateful we are for what we have — no one has it all. Nor can they.”

Mayer illustrated her belief in a similar philosophy when she banned telecommuting at Yahoo, a move that brought much criticism and some praise. According to Forbes, Mayer’s oft-maligned policy was the product of her belief that being present for face-to-face interactions is crucial to developing truly innovative ideas, working cohesively as a team, and ultimately developing as an employee.

Mayer lives true to this philosophy. For example, Forbes noted that while Mayer worked as a vice president at Google, she attended up to 70 meetings weekly, primarily comprised of efficient, idea-generating office hours she held every day for her colleagues. Whether it was a five-minute check-in or a longer discussion, these meetings were key to some of the innovations Google developed during Mayer’s term there.

So work flexibility aside, how can both companies and female professionals improve America’s chances of gender equality in the working world? The answer will likely involve a combination of changing people’s mindsets about women’s role in society, while also creating workplace policies and accommodations that allow women to participate as fully as possible in their given occupation, while still leaving time to nurture their family relationships.

This article is originally published on

More Business articles from Business 2 Community:

Subscribe to our mailing list
* indicates required
Small Business Services