The Real Reasons Why Women’s Careers Stall After Parenthood

A new study from Harvard Business School sheds light on what happens after graduation, and the answer isn’t what you’d expect.

The Real Reasons Why Women’s Careers Stall After Parenthood
[Photo: Flickr user mrhayata]

It’s no secret women are conspicuously absent from boardrooms across the country, and for years one of the main reasons given for this phenomenon was that they were choosing to stay home to raise families. New research, however, challenges that claim.


Rethink What You ‘Know’ About High-Achieving Women,” appearing in the December issue of Harvard Business Review, is based on a study of more than 25,000 Harvard Business School graduates. The article’s authors, Robin Ely and Colleen Ammerman of Harvard Business School, and Pamela Stone of Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center, focused their research on baby boomers (ages 49-67), generation X (ages 32-48), and millennials (ages 26-31) of both genders, seeking to find out both graduate expectations for their lives after grad school and their experiences in the years since.

Women Aren’t Opting Out To Raise Families

As far back as the early 1990s, the authors note, researchers have found evidence that women weren’t leaving the workforce in droves to raise children. A study by consulting firm Deloitte and Touche, for example, found 70% of women who left the company were still working full-time a year later, just for a different employer, and less than 10% had left the workforce to raise families.

Today, 11% of female graduates decided to leave work behind to care for their families. According to the study, the majority of those women left reluctantly, finding they’d been passed over for high-profile projects, offered less fulfilling work, or, as one respondent called it, “mommy-tracked.” Others point to the lack of professional part-time positions available. Despite these findings, 77% of respondents believed the reason women weren’t advancing in their careers was because they chose family over work.

Women Are Less Satisfied With Their Careers

The vast majority of women believed their careers would rank equally in importance with those of their partners, while more than half of male respondents expected their careers to take priority over their partners’ careers.

Nearly 75% of generation X and baby boomer men reported their careers had taken precedence over their partners’, and 40% of women reported their careers had taken a back seat to their partners’. When it comes to child care, the study found that half the women expected to take on the majority of child rearing responsibilities, at the time of graduation, while 75% of the men believed their partners would take on that role.

Women who believed their careers would be equal in importance to their partners’, as well as believed a more equal division of labor for child care responsibilities, had their expectations dashed on both fronts.


As for the future? Half of millennial men expect their careers will take priority, while three-quarters of their female counterparts believe their careers will be at least as important as their partners’. And two-thirds of millennial men believe their partners will handle the majority of child care responsibilities, while 42% of millennial women anticipate taking primary responsibility. The authors believe change will likely be slow.

There are, however, things that companies can do to support women leaders today. Here’s what the author’s suggest:

1. Create A Level Playing Field

Companies must evolve beyond the notion that offering flextime or “family friendly” options are enough to retain and develop high-potential women, the authors say. “Women want more meaningful work, more challenging assignments, and more opportunities for career growth,” they write.

2. Be Mindful Of Unspoken Perceptions That Limit Women

Women may be opting to stay home to raise their children because the options available to them once they return from maternity leave are limited, leading them to “default to a support role in which their jobs are secondary… Companies need to provide adequate entry points to full-time work for women who have, for instance, recently been on a part-time schedule or taken a career break,” the authors write.

The authors note that the reason why more women aren’t in top management positions isn’t entirely clear, and more research is needed.

[h/t: Harvard Business Review]



About the author

Lindsay LaVine is a Chicago-based business and lifestyle freelance writer who's worked for NBC and CNN. Her work has appeared online in,,, NBC News, MSNBC, Yahoo, Business Insider, and Fox Business.