Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Why MBA Moms Earn Less

Two Harvard University Economists, Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, recently released the study "The Career Cost of Family" that found among highly educated women, MBAs took the largest percentage "mommy penalty" while those with medical degrees receive the lowest loss. PhDs and attorneys are somewhere in the middle.

Back in 2008 I blogged about my own family vs. MBA career path dilemma. That led to a series of compensation-killing decisions: leave corporate finance, select Federal sector management consulting (less travel) than commercial sector, then off-ramping to entrepreneurship. None of these were bad decisions- for either my career or my family- but they explain why my salary history looks like EKG monitor on a heart disease patient.

From both my personal experience and from negotiating both "balance" trade-offs and compensation on behalf of my candidates, I've come to realize that MBA moms take the greatest hit because:
  • There is no straight-forward "business" career path. Industries with large numbers of women- medicine, law, accounting- all have defined career paths for success and most have accommodations for women (or men, to be fair) that are on that non-traditional path. Law firms have part-time partner tracks where working parents can work less and achieve partner status, just on a longer timeline. In business, you can be working in management consulting, investment banking, brand management- you name it- and with those diversified offerings comes a web of career opportunities that all too often result in women "off ramping" when they have children.
  • Who are the mentors? Ask anyone to name the top women in the C-suite and you'll hear the names "Meg Whitman" or "Carly Fiorina." They're not even IN business anymore. With no one to lead the way to show a path to the top while having children, women off-ramp rather than stay in the game, leaving these 18+ month employment gaps that severely impact lifetime earning.
  • MBAs are for over-achievers. I went to a Top 25 business school, I know the type-- over achievers, hard chargers, the men and women who want to lead the business community. It's hard to be a corporate leader when you have to break every 2-3 hours to breastpump. It just is. Women are on a longer career arc. When their male counterparts are having stress-induced workaholic heart attacks at 50, my hope is that the women MBAs fill in the gap.
  • Kids are not convenient. I recently visited my closest b-school friend overseas and while he's spent the last decade climbing the ranks of international management for a Fortune 100 global brand, I've put down roots in the best public school district I could find. At graduation (he, single, me- married with two babies) we took very different paths. Not better or worse, not right or wrong, just very different routes that have resulted in vastly different compensation levels.
I recently watched a TED talk with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg where she explains why we have so few women leaders. I'm not sure I agree with everything she says, but I love her advice: keep a seat at the table. You don't have to be at "the table" when your children are young, you don't have to be at the head of said table, but keep your head in the game and your seat, well, at the table.