Spring/Summer 2008

Power of Ideas

MBAs Take the Mommy Track

Prof. Catherine Wolfram finds Harvard MBAs More Likely than MDs, JDs to be At-Home Moms


By Pamela Tom

A surprising number of highly educated MBAs are dropping out of the labor force. Associate Professor Catherine Wolfram, a member of the Haas Economic Analysis and Policy Group, studied surveys taken by nearly 1,000 Harvard undergraduate alumni and found, 15 years after graduation, business school graduates are more likely than doctors and lawyers to leave the workforce. The common factors: being married, being female, becoming a mother.

In her study, "Opt-Out Patterns Across Careers: Labor Force Participation Rates Among Highly Educated Mothers," Wolfram conjectures that the business world is less female-friendly than the fields of medicine and law. "Women who are in family-friendly environments are more likely to stay working," says Wolfram, who co-authored the study with Jane Leber Herr, Ph.D. 08, UC Berkeley's Department of Economics.

Wolfram and Herr used Harvard College reunion surveys for the 1988 to 1991 graduating classes to mine for their initial data. The women surveyed were approximately 37 years old and had at least one child. Fifteen years after graduating from Harvard College, 28 percent of the women who went on to get MBAs were stay-at-home moms. By comparison, only 6 percent of MDs stopped working outside of the home.

Of the MBAs surveyed, 27 percent had careers in the financial sector and 17 percent worked in consulting. The majority of the MDs worked in specialties centered on women (13 percent in obstetrics/gynecology), children (31 percent in pediatric medicine), and family. Wolfram hypothesizes that work environment plays a key role in determining career longevity. Doctors, for example, often work in private practices and may be able to work part-time more easily than women in other fields. On the other hand, businesswomen more commonly must adhere to the corporate dictate, in terms of both daily hours and heavy travel commitments.

The "Opt-Out" research also includes Harvard women who later obtained their JDs and found 79 percent of attorney moms continued working after having children. While other surveys have found that lawyers were no more satisfied with their jobs than businesswomen, this study shows that lawyers do appear to have more family-friendly alternatives available. JD mothers who remained in the labor force were more likely to switch careers, while MBA moms were twice as likely to merely quit.

The study sought to account for the value of a mother's time at work and at home. It also considered a spouse's occupation and degree, children, minority status, and the influence of the family's earnings on the women's professional decisions.

Notably, 42 percent of the sample group held the same graduate degree as their husbands. "MDs, with the highest labor-force participation, … have higher earning spouses than any other group," Wolfram notes in the paper. Since Wolfram and Herr find that women are less likely to work the more money their husbands make, this does not explain the high labor force participation of MDs, but does help to explain why MBAs are less likely to work than, for example, Ph.D.s. However, for the Harvard moms, their own higher wages provide another reason to continue working. Surprisingly, the researchers found highly educated mothers are more responsive to their spouse's earnings than mothers in the general population.

Despite the seemingly disheartening results of her research, Wolfram believes shifting policy and social norms in the more inflexible fields, such as business, may increase the propensity to work after motherhood. Wolfram also offers advice to young MBA women embarking on a career in business: "Talk now to women ten years older than you. The message is to be cognizant of the environment your degree gets you into and what opportunities it offers."


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Prof. Catherine Wolfram

Prof. Catherine Wolfram