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


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