Business Schools

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.

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