The Horrible Work-Life Truth I Learned at the Harvard Business School Reunion

by cv harquail on June 7, 2010

That’s one headline for it. Another one might be:

“How to make a table of women with graduate degrees cry.”

I could spend a bit of time trying to set the scene to give you some perspective, but let me cut straight to the chase.

Sitting at a table, talking with my female friends– some MBAs, some JDs, all of us wives — we were discussing how again this year, the HBS reunion programming seemed to ignore overlook the (female) MBA alums and MBA partners who were working to ‘on ramp’ back into full-time, full energy, full size career paths. We started to pool the advice we’d heard at various presentations and panel discussions. Work-family balance, redefining successes, green business opportunities, blah blah blah.

None of it new, except for one zinger from the panel on Entrepreneurship in Digital Environments.

No, it wasn’t the comment about how digital entrepreneurs underestimate the physical, material elements of building an organization, or thoughts about whether Facebook’s understanding of privacy is too anchored in one generation’s view.

No, it was the nearly throwaway comment by one of the female panelists (Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook), in response to a question about the personal demands of being an entrepreneur. She said:

The most important business decision a woman makes is
who she marries.

The panelist appeared to be referring specifically to female entrepreneurs like her self, but we knew who she was really talking to:


Yo, Harvard MBA running the suburban PTO! Editor of The Michigan Law Review, at home full time with 4 boys! Baker Scholar turned part-time executive coach! She’s talking to us. (??)

201006071423.jpgWe made bad decisions. We married the wrong guys.

Which is actually kind of hard to believe, if you look at the guys we married. We married the kind ones, the not too terribly selfish ones, the ones who joined the Peace Corp before returning to Mc Kinsey, the ones who took jobs in Detroit so we could finish our degrees, the ones who knew better than to talk about market capitalization at the Montessori PreK picnic.

We married good guys. But, for our own careers, this was supposedly the wrong decision.

Because, if we’d chosen different men or not to marry entirely, we might be running Facebook, or the natural beverage division of a multinational food company, or the private equity firm that just closed its latest fund when it hit 5 billion dollars.

Is that really how it works?

I don’t think the issue is whether or not we made a bad decision when we got married. The issue is how very much that decision influenced what we have been able to do, and what we have subsequently “chosen” to do, with our careers, within our marriages.

Where do we go with a ‘truth’ like this?

We can go in three directions to interrogate a statement like The most important business decision a woman makes is who she marries.

1. We can ask in what ways that statement is true.

Because it is true. Any partnership constrains some choices and enables others. We might each be on bigger career paths, with big W2s and even bigger carries, if we’d chosen different partners. The partners we chose reflected our hopes and expectations for how work & life would be. Back when we all were more naive, and when changes seemed imminent.

2. We can ask why this advice is given to business women, because this advice is and has always also been true for men.

Male MBAs’ achievement of big careers is almost always supported by some other adult taking on full responsibility for the domestic front.

Thus, our spouses are having the careers that they are having, in no small part because of the careers we wives are *not* having.  Just as She gets to run that start-up because He’s home with the 3 kids, He gets to run that start-up because She’s at home with 3 kids.

3. We can ask why partner choice– and choices within the partnership– are only as far as the advice goes.

Why is the importance– and thus the blame– placed on who you marry/ partner, and not on why MBA, JD, and so many other careers are set up so that full-on, big time success is possible only for one partner?

Why doesn’t the advice focus on changing the organizations and the structure of the career paths themselves?

Why isn’t the advice: The important business decisions we can make are those that transform our organizations so that, in more if not most situations, both members of a marriage or partnership can have big careers?


The Decisions at the Table

I’m getting all curmudgeon-y and grumpy here are I write this … I know I’m responsible for my decisions. At the same time I’m unhappy, appalled and frankly angry at the limited set of choices and at how these choices have played out.

If you’d told us in 1990 that our choice of spouses was the most important business decision we’d make, we’d have laughed. Scoffed, even.

We were sure it was going to be different. Our educations and our career ambitions were bigger than our mothers’. Our spouses were more enlightened than our dads. Our business futures were brighter.

Sure we’re happy. We love our spouses. We love our kids. We feel strongly that our priorities are in order. We know that we actually did make these choices, and that other choices might have made us less happy in the end.

And, we hope know that it’s not over yet.

So we can sit there, at the banquet table at the Harvard Business School 20th Reunion, with our MBAs, our JDs, our PhDs, and our ambitions, sharing our dismay and a few tears.

Because we get it. For each of us at this particular table, the most important decision we’ve made has been about whom to marry, and from that decision what partnerships to build, what families to create, what values to live.

We just weren’t ready to treat this as a business decision.

And, apparently, it was.

And that, girlfriends, was the horrible work-life truth I learned at the Harvard Business School Reunion.

Image: Messages by RobyneGay


fran melmed June 7, 2010 at 4:37 pm

cv, there’s so much here, it’s hard to know where to begin. first, i, of course, wasn’t there to hear what this woman said in context. there’s a part of me who reads it now and wonders if she was tossing out a line that could be interpreted as a joke. because, as you say, men have married women that can help them, whether that’s politically, financially, or domestically (so, too, have women, in varying degrees, depending on the generation).

then there’s my other reaction, which is: yeah. so? how did you marry the “wrong” ones? who we choose to marry should say a lot about how we see our life unfolding and what we value. and i think that’s also true for what portion of the pie we choose for our career to take.

the crying comes from the struggle, which didn’t exist as openly or vehemently in preceding generations. for our grandmothers, there was no struggle because there was no question how they’d live their lives. for our mothers, there was less struggle because they were breaking down doors and damn glad to be doing it. for us, we can go either way and therein lies the struggle. neither road leads to complete happiness because one portion of us is left without “a room of one’s own.”

am i repeating you? or am i adding to the conversation? i really don’t know.


cv harquail June 7, 2010 at 4:56 pm

Hi Fran,
thanks for your comment, it makes me feel very ‘heard’. They’ll eventually put up a video of the panel discussion, so I’ll go back and clarify the context then… but it wasn’t really said as an offhand ‘joke’; I should clarify that it was offhand b/c the conversation up to that point was all about digital businesses. The shift to a personal, work-life question was abrupt.
I think the speaker (Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook) was serious in her comment, b/c I’ve heard her speak before about challenges facing career women. She has said point blank and with regret that she does not expect to see gender equity for her peers/cohort, but hopes that things change by the time her kids have careers. Her kids are preschoolers.

Leanne Chase - @LeanneCLC June 7, 2010 at 5:53 pm

CV –

Oh my goodness! This is so much of what the work/life struggle is…is becoming comfortable with our decisions…and it is so hard. I’ve been struggling a lot with this in the last year because I do want both partners to have the great careers…and I can’t figure out how that’s possible, unless we take turns…which kind of stinks as one needs to sit around while the other thrives.

I’m at peace with this now…but it took a long time and I still want the system to change. But I’ll be the one hanging around for a bit, while hubby flies high career-wise. And while I’m not a Harvard Biz grad…many friends are and we have the same conversations.

Thanks for writing this…hopefully it will help future Harvard MBAs make a better informed business decision for their life.

(Although I still wouldn’t change a thing in my choice for a husband – which is even a harder truth to accept – if I could talk to my 1990 self – it would not matter – which is nice and frustrating at the same time.)

Bret Simmons June 7, 2010 at 11:24 pm

Way to go, CV. Kudos to you for having the courage to write this. As a male, what can we do to help? Bret

Anne Marie McEwan June 8, 2010 at 12:59 am

CV, I have thought and thought about how to respond to your heart-felt post. As Fran says, it is hard to know where to begin.

I don’t think the issue is so much that we married the wrong man. It is that we married full stop.The fact is that we go into these partnerships unaware of the consequences, or at least I did. The entrepreneurs I admire in my network are all young and single. I am currently watching a duo of straight-out-of- university women succeeding. Their energies are not diverted. And I stand on the side-lines cheering.

My ex-husband is a good man. He was, and remains, one of my biggest fans. Nevertheless, the rage and unfairness over the subordination of my career opportunities still rankle. Let me be further clear. So much time has gone by that I can admit that in fact the situation perversely suited me. My lack of confidence was crippling. Since his career was seen by both of us the main event, I had the perfect excuse to do easy, unchallenging jobs. I could pack them in when I liked. And I did.

So here I now am. Mid-50s and full of determination. The lack of self confidence has been overcome. If I fail, I now fail trying and I am proud to be giving it a go.

It had already occured to me that there is a fabulous business opportunity in all this. Sisters are, or should be, doing it for themselves. An abundance of highly educated wives and mothers looking for opportunities to fly is great news for me and my business.

Leila Monaghan June 8, 2010 at 9:11 am

So much food for thought here, CV, thanks for this. Reminds me of conversations we have been having for 30 years. Do you remember the session in Goodhart Hall about this? It might have been on having a Women’s Studies major at Bryn Mawr. Jenny Brown stood up and said the greatest challenge we would have is balancing work and family. She is right. When we look at Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, we see massively talented, successful, interesting and warm women who have gone it alone.

But I also take comfort from the doors that open up from taking the scenic route, doors not only into love and families, but doors into new career choices. I remember talking to Anne Marie Soucy after she had moved from a tenure track position somewhere to an uncertain job prospect in Canada so her husband could follow his dream career of animator. She found work organizing an outreach classes that reached women’s groups in Africa trying to get educations for themselves. She hadn’t expected ever to be doing such work and yet it suited her and made her feel like she was doing something right.

When I left a reasonably permanent job in Indiana to move to Wyoming to be with my partner, I knew both that it was the only way to be with him (my love is deeply rooted here, he had just started building his own house when I met him), and that it was the unsafe career option. I make less money now but so many doors have opened up. I teach Disability Studies, something I could have never done where I was before and have met one of the most remarkable groups of students I’ve ever had. I’m organizing a conference just because I felt like it. I’ve met an Arapaho student whose father remembers the great anthropologist Alfred Kroeber visiting his family when he was young. Even the night shift work I picked up to make ends meet introduced me to a remarkable range of unhappy often violent girls who I have had the privilege of seeing grow and mature and become self-confident young women who themselves are reaching out to Haitian earthquake survivors, the senior citizens of the community, and to each other. And these benefits are on top of living in an off-grid house with views of grass and mountains to the horizon. To paraphrase you, CV, life feels more authentic when we allow our hearts to dictate some of the paths we take.

Thanks for this column. Much food for thought.

Maren June 8, 2010 at 11:37 am

I was hoping you would hit the question nail on the head, and from my perspective, you did: The important business decisions we can make are those that transform our organizations so that, in more if not most situations, both members of a marriage or partnership can have big careers?

This also felt timely for me because I was re-reading Ricardo Semler’s The Seven-Day Weekend again in preparation for some research I am doing around accountability, and was struck, again, in the ways Semco has managed to organize in ways that give employees maximum job opportunity, flexibility and the life balance they need — when they need it (and this is key) — and still drive a hugely successful, prosperous business.

I can’t help but wonder how much of the fire could be taken from these gender/career/family issues simply by finding better ways to organize. Women have long sought to break down doors and have mostly had to insert themselves into a male-oriented Taylorized organizational model. I say that without resentment — it is what it is.

To me, it seems like we’d be better served to have a different conversation, which begins with the question you so elegantly posed.
My kids are long raised, and for much of my life, I did it as a single parent while working full-time as a print journalist. And now that I am married to a man who really knows what being a partner is — someone who cares as much about your success as their own — I sometimes wonder how child-raising might have been different, and make assumptions that while it might not have always been better, it would definitely have been easier.

But what I really find myself wondering these days is how different my life if I had been born into a culture that supports family/career blending, or if I had been able to develop a career with an organization such as Semco.
Great post, CV…

Susan Brown June 8, 2010 at 12:28 pm

For eight years I put my career “second” to raise my two girls. I then jumped back into my career full time and have done well, but feel the gap between me and some of my fellow MPA’s who never stepped back from full-time careers. Even now feel that I am stretched thin between taking care of clients and being a fully available parent. What I take away from this experience is not whether I married the right man. It’s that children need a lot of parenting time; it’s not a part-time job. I don’t know how this can get “fixed” without a change in our paradigms about work, money, business organization and success.

cv harquail June 8, 2010 at 2:19 pm

Brett & Anne Marie,
Thanks so much for joining in… Brett, I’m not sure what help to ask for (as a representative of the question…). Being allowed to winge and then move on to bigger systemic questions makes a difference, though. Helping to pop the analysis up to a level higher than “her decision” to “our system” makes it possible for everyone to join in revising our structures so that they support our expectations.
Anne Marie, being frustrated by obstacles really can invite us to find excuses, or even to misdiagnose the obstacles themselves, to let us off the hook. It’s hard to stay honest about the disappointment at the same time as taking responsibility. That part about it not being over? That was for you, for me, for Christine, for Cali, for TheMamaBee, for CravingBalance, for Fran, for Maren, for leila, for SusanB, and more. There is still more to be written, and we all are busy writing it. So I’ll make a note to follow up at the 25th Reunion.

cv harquail June 8, 2010 at 2:25 pm

Maren, Leanne & Susan,
The children and parenting part of this dilemma, while enabled (most of the time) by the ‘marry’ decision, is what makes the issues so profound. I can’t imagine not having and being there for my girls, and I can’t imagine a career that would have asked me to give this up. But I *can* imagine a world of work, family, life, and meaning where the blending or turn-taking would feel more equitable (both between partners and between spheres). Sometimes this kind of imagining seems self-indulgent, or like false nostalgia, but other times it’s inspiring. I want to spend more time in “inspiring”, which is one of the reasons I hang out in cyberspace with you.

Carla Casilli June 8, 2010 at 7:12 pm

In 1954, social psychologist Leon Festinger hypothesized that humans can’t help but judge themselves based on other people’s opinions and achievements: this is referred to as social comparison. Your post is a classic example of this drive. This impulse can lead us in all sorts of directions, both positive and negative. Some aspects of social comparison can prompt us to make errors of judgment such as post hoc erg propter hoc. Some of your conjectures have suffered this fate. Fallacies of presupposition are essentially “what if” arguments. But these questions are impossible to reconcile simply because all choices lead to other choices; even choosing not to decide has an outcome. No decision stands alone.

As I noted on Twitter yesterday, I admire your three reasoned response options to the panelist’s comment; however, I disagree that marriage is the defining moment in an educated woman’s life. Do you mean to imply that your life prior to being wed has proved ultimately inconsequential to the life you’re living now?

The idea of self-efficacy prevents me from believing that your ideas about life have changed so radically in the ensuing years. Marriage is a joint effort and you both bring value and decision-making abilities to the table. If you feel sublimated or disenfranchised in some way, was the decision of whom to marry responsible for that emotion? Has your spouse been silent on this issue?

Who we choose to marry and whether or not we choose to have children, these decisions most certainly affect the arc of our lives both socially and professionally. But we gain nothing by imagining that there are others who have allegedly made more politically astute marriage decisions, especially if we are happy with our spouses, our children, or our freedom. The old adage that no one truly knows what goes on in a marriage except the people in it is a truism. So, let’s take responsibility for our decisions and find the joy in our own self-directed actions. Few women have the luxury of choice in education, in marriage, in career path, and in childbirth decisions—so let’s celebrate our own abilities without comparing ourselves to an unknown other.

Tim Kreider took on a similar topic late last year in an opinion piece on the NYT: I think the illustration that accompanies his writing says volumes

Chase Brumfield June 8, 2010 at 8:15 pm

I read this article and had to do so somewhat gritting my teeth. I admittedly don’t feel like I have much right to comment however, considering there’s no way I could completely understand the female perspective.

With that said, to say that marriage is a “business decision” is an interesting viewpoint. There is no doubt that who you choose to marry will effect your career as a woman, but perhaps the right individual could even enhance your career as a woman.

In my humble opinion to use a statement like “the most important business decision a woman makes is who she marries” does a disservice to the women whose careers aren’t defined by their positions within corporations, but rather their dignity as competent employees; wherever they find themselves. Women are competent, capable, and tenacious… whether they be married, single, career oriented, or a mother.

Marriage is not a business decision, it is a life choice, one that can certainly effect a career but one that must also ask how important a “career” and “success” are to an individual. Women are not held back by who they marry, they are held back by statements like “we are held back by who we marry.”

Hope you appreciate the somewhat different angle, and if not… that’s ok too 😉

Give. Get. Give.
Chase Brumfield

cv harquail June 8, 2010 at 9:20 pm

Hi Chase & Carla, Thanks for adding your comments!
Chase, I probably should put quotation marks around the word ‘truth’, since I think it’s only a partial truth– and a problematic one at that. We are held back by the statement, and we are constrained (though maybe ‘held back’ is too directional) but the choice. And, as Carla is emphasizing, we are held/ influenced by any/all choices.

Carla, I’m not confident that you groked the entirety of my point, which includes both acknowledging and moving beyond whatever sadness i experience in response to my life choices & limitations so far. it would be disingenuous, and dismissive, to ignore the reality of the feelings, just as it seems dismissive to ignore the reality of the constraints. i don’t anchor all the constraints to that particular decision.
Also, I’m not comparing (and my friends are not comparing) ourselves to “target others”, but to our own visions of who we thought we were going to become. I’d love to check in with you ten years from now, after a few more concrete decisions of your own, to see how your view evolves. Thanks also for the link to the Krieder article. cv

Adrian Bashford June 10, 2010 at 11:45 pm

Awesome post! A great read for career-women and men!

physician assistant June 20, 2010 at 8:59 am

found your site on today and really liked it.. i bookmarked it and will be back to check it out some more later

Manpreet July 21, 2010 at 4:08 pm

Very thoughtful article. For a fresh take on building strong careers and families, check out Getting to 50/50 — on how men and women share roles with all sorts of good results — including a healthier sex life. The book also debunks some common myths that cause many moms to back away from their jobs. Authors Sharon Meers (a Goldman MD now in tech) and Joanna Strober (a private equity exec) share their often funny tales of combining work and family. Definitely a book worth checking out.

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