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Is Your Husband’s Career Taking Precedence Over Yours?

Photograph by Getty Images

Good news, moms! If you’re feeling a despondent about your career path, especially when you compare it to your husband’s, you’re not alone. The gender gap is real: Harvard says so.

In fact, according to a new study in the Harvard Business Review by Harvard Business School (HBS) Professor Robin Ely, Hunter College Professor Pamela Stone, and Assistant Director of the Gender Initiative at HSB, Colleen Ammerman, the gender gap is alive and well. And the study suggests that it persists, in part, because of the attitudes and expectations we—both men and women—take into our marriages.

The sobering truth is that in many families, the familial and professional expectations of the husband and wife are simply not in sync.

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What the study showed

Women’s careers are placed on the backburner, one family at a time.

Researchers interviewed 25,000 HSB graduates over the past decade, and half of the men said they were in jobs with opportunities for career advancement, while only 41 percent claimed their jobs offered advancement. Think about it: working long hours—the women in the study work on average 52 hours per week—with no prospect of advancement isn’t exactly a pathway to professional bliss. And the numbers bear that out: 59 percent of the men reported that they found their work meaningful, compared to only 49 percent of the women. It’s not hard to imagine why a terminal position (i.e., a dead-end job, though one that employs a Harvard graduate) might sap some of the meaning out of the work.

The study also asked married male and female graduates about their expectations when they graduated with their MBAs in order to compare those expectations to their reality years later. For the men surveyed, reality exceeded their expectations. Specifically, 61 percent of the men said that, upon graduation, they expected their careers to take precedence over their partner’s. Lucky men—turns out that for 70 percent of them, their careers actually did take precedence over their partner's careers. Here’s the kick in the gut for the women: Only 25 percent of the women at graduation expected their careers to take a backseat to their partners’, but 39 percent of the women reported that the reality was their male partners’ careers were front and center.

So, women’s careers are placed on the backburner, one family at a time.

Of course, no discussion of career and family is complete without the inquiry into childcare: Who’s expected to do it? How is it divided? According to the study, 78 percent of the graduating males said their spouses would be the primary caregivers in their marriages. The reality? In 86 percent of their marriages, the wife is the primary caregiver. Not surprisingly, more women than expected took the lead with childcare in their marriages.

Even in high-achieving marriages with two ambitious partners, the women end up doing the majority of the work of caring for children. And we all know how hard and thankless that work can be.

Debunking the “Opt Out” Myth

Only 11 percent of the HBS graduates had opted out of the workforce to care for children full-time.

Since I graduated from law school a decade ago, I’ve heard the “opt out” theory as an explanation for why there are so few women partners at the top-tier law firms. (There were zero female partners in my large litigation department four years ago.) The theory is that women have babies and leave their careers behind, entrusted to the men who remain on the path.

This self-selecting, opting out that women allegedly do during their child-rearing years was actually not a big factor for the women in this study. Only 11 percent of the HBS graduates had opted out of the workforce to care for children full-time. That means 89 percent of them are still toiling in the vineyards side-by-side with men who will most likely ascend the ranks faster than they will, for reasons that are still complex and hard to tease out, but undoubtedly include covert and overt biases in favor of men. The study also noted that for women of color, only 7 percent of the women opted out. Thus, the notion that women are choosing to duck out in droves as an explanation for why they are grossly under-represented in the top tiers of organizations is erroneous.

Good News About Family Accommodations

I didn’t want to pull the “Mommy card.”

And short of opting out altogether, what about long breaks or the other boundaries that many women allegedly draw in order to stay connected to their children, such as limited travel or a reduced schedule? Looks like we can’t blame that either.

According to the study, both men and women in top management positions were “more likely” than those below them to have made decisions to accommodate family.

This is the good news from the study from my perspective. For those of us navigating in the trenches, it’s easy to fear that our requests for family accommodation will have adverse professional consequences. I remember making myself sick from fear before telling my boss I would have to leave a deposition at 6 p.m. because I had to relieve my nanny. I didn’t want to seem like I didn’t care about the work; I didn’t want to pull the “Mommy card.”

If just as many of my male and female superiors are setting boundaries in order to care for or be with their families, then maybe it’s OK for me to ask for what I need. At the very least, maybe I don’t have to make myself sick over it.

RELATED: 4 Ways Motherhood Changed My Marriage

Overall, there’s some small consolation that all of us are struggling to figure this out together. Ambitious, Ivy-League-educated women haven’t found some magical key to work-life-balance and gender parity any more than I have. Until we find the answers, we have to keep asking the questions, debunking the myths, asking for the equality we desire in our marriages, and setting the boundaries we need at work.

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