Thursday, September 4, 2008

MBA Moms: Why We Opt Out

My first foray into the wild, wonderful wonderful world of work-life balance came during my second year of business school at Georgetown University, a rigorous Top 25 Program. Then the day after 9/11 I found out I was expecting twins.

That infamous day, I was sitting in Professor Homa's Advanced Marketing Strategy lecture, smack dab between the White House and the Pentagon, and had to "evacuate" to my home in Arlington. The next day I find out that I'm bringing not one, but two, babies into this now insanely scary world. Those two events led me to believe that despite my career ambitions, I was, in no uncertain terms, heading back to the 80-hour week lifestyle of corporate finance. The next question: then what, exactly, was I going to do with my $60K Top 25 MBA?

I spent that year on and off bedrest, struggling to finish on time. I got by with the help of some creative and supportive professors and some incredibly helpful classmates. I actually conducted team meetings at my home, as I lay (left side, feet elevated) on the couch with laptops everywhere. One classmate delivered Big Macs and KFC to satisfy my cravings while dropping off assignments. Another ferried me to and fro the NICU after I was discharged from the hospital without my premies but could not yet drive.

After nearly being booted from the Program due to my inability to travel internationally (Buenos Aires at 28 weeks with twins? I think not!) I graduated on time, two six-week old boys in tow, my Mom having made custom cap and gowns for them as well. I learned two valuable lessons that year: I wasn't going to be able to do this alone and this next phase of my career was going to HAVE to include children.

After taking six months "off" with the twins I began to look for the right career-family fit. I surveyed contacts at local firms that made the Working Mother Magazine's Top Companies List, conducted informational interviews with anyone and everyone I could find, and finally landed at Top 5 Consulting Firm but in their Federal Practice, an area known for better (less!) hours than the commercial side. I took a pay cut and it wasn't exactly what I wanted to be doing professionally, but for the next four years, that was the right fit for me and my family.

Which is why I read with interest Business Week's article MBA Moms Most Likely to Opt Out, forwarded to me by a fellow Georgetown MBA Alum who also just happens to have twins and a singleton. This article follows the research of UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business Professors Catherine Wolfram and Jane Leber Herr who followed the career paths of 1,000 women who graduated from Harvard between 1988 and 1991 in a study titled "Opt-out Patterns Across Careers: Labor Force Participation Rates Among Educated Mothers."

The study found that by the time these women were 15 years out of college, 28% of those that went on to get MBAs had "opted out," compared with only 21% who pursued JDs and 6% who pursued medical degrees. The study points to the fact that the medical profession, and increasingly the legal world, are accommodating part-time and flexible work schedules. These professions also have a well-established career path, with very precise steps on how to get from point A to point B, from resident to sole practioner, from first year attorney to partner.

The business world at large has more winding paths and in certain sectors (and I can speak personally of corporate finance), there is no part-time. It's 80-100 hours per week of face time or nothing at all. Looking at the talent that I know first-hand, the women I worked with, the candidates I interview every day, all I can say is: how incredibly short-sighted.

Smart firms are reaching out to these women, creating or finding positions for them while their children are young so that when they're ready to "be back" they are with the same firm. Many firms are beginning to realize that, dollar for dollar, they can get the best value out of a seasoned veteran who just might have children for 30 hours per week.

The pay-to-productivity ratio speaks for itself. For about the same cost, a firm can get a 24 year old with two years of experience who will likely leave to go to business school anyway, or a 34 year old with an MBA, ten years of experience, who might have a couple of kids and work a 30 hour work week. Who does more, better, faster? Come on smart firms, you know the answer.

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