Why Aren’t Business Schools Like Harvard Doing Case Studies About Motherhood?
Our future business leaders have the power to create a work environment that encourages more women to be moms and CEOs
While I have always wanted to be a mom, I never gave much thought to how it would affect my career until the spring semester of my second year at Harvard Business School. Like many of my classmates, I was searching for that perfect post-MBA job. Unlike many of my classmates, I was pregnant. And instead of spending introspective time honing my criteria for that first job, I obsessed over when and how to tell prospective employers about my pregnancy.
My daughter is now a year old. Interviewing while pregnant was just the first of many difficult intersections between motherhood and career. Telling a prospective employer that I need to pump breast milk in the middle of an 11-hour-long interview day? Check. Taking four days off of work when my daughter was too sick to go to daycare? Check. Coordinating daycare pickups with my husband around our work schedules? Check, check, check. The seasoned moms out there have been through this and more.
These classroom discussions mask the reality that parenthood plays a different role in men and women’s work lives, starting with pregnancy.
I graduated from HBS over a year ago, and in reflecting on my time there, I keep coming back to a pair of questions: Why didn’t we ever do a case study on being a mother in the workforce? And why didn’t we ever discuss how to manage a team that includes parents, specifically moms?
A large portion of business school students are likely to become working mothers
These questions, first and foremost, are for the benefit of my female classmates, a significant number of whom will become mothers within 10 years of graduating. My HBS class of 2018 was proudly touted as being 43% female, an increase over the previous few class years. Of the over 400 women who entered Aldrich Hall in the fall of 2016, only a handful were already moms. For many of us, working while mothering was still to come.
Like all business schools, HBS is career-focused. What’s more, it has a reputation for training world-class CEOs. I assume that my female classmates, just like our male counterparts, enrolled in business school with the intention of building a successful career on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley, or in Fortune 500 businesses.
The training that we received reflected those shared goals, as it well should have in most domains. But when it came to work-life balance, we spoke about it mostly from a male-parent or non-parent perspective. We read a case about Boston Consulting Group’s initiatives to retain employees who wanted more time with their families. In another, we debated whether someone should take a promotion with lots of travel or stay in their current position to spend more time with their family. One of our professors proudly told us that he had flown back from a work trip for just one night to see his daughter’s dance recital. These well-intentioned examples emphasize how some people divide their time between work and home, but they do not delve into the daily challenges that mothers at work can often face. In fact, these classroom discussions mask the reality that parenthood plays a different role in men and women’s work lives, starting with pregnancy.
Much of the conversation around why there are so few female CEOs dances around the physical and logistical challenges of combining motherhood with a career.
During pregnancy, women undergo physical changes, and these changes affect women’s presence at work. Morning sickness can appear at any time of day and, for some women, can last for months. It is standard for doctor’s visits to increase in frequency — we’re talking at least one visit per week during the last month of pregnancy. Oh, and then there’s the weeks-long recovery that comes after labor.
But parenthood affects men and women differently even beyond pregnancy and childbirth. Many women still take on the majority of child-rearing and of backup childcare, and sometimes end up dropping out of the workforce. For those women who stay in the workforce, they may have to face the now-famous Mommy Tax, while men might instead benefit from the Daddy Bonus.
Much of the conversation around why there are so few female CEOs dances around the physical and logistical challenges of combining motherhood with a career. The challenges are alluded to, but I wonder if people are uncomfortable discussing them upfront. These are topics we should not shy away from. We should learn how to talk about them, and HBS should set the tone for how this can be done.
Examples of mom-CEOs inspire women
Understanding how other women weave together work and mom life is critical for those of us on the lower rungs of the corporate ladder. It’s the long climb to the top that can be the most time-intensive and rigidly scheduled, and therefore the most difficult for young mothers. And while executives may have 24/7 jobs, they tend to have more control over their calendars, allowing them to attend afternoon ballet recitals or last-minute pediatrician appointments.
Using real-life examples as the basis for first-year class discussion can prompt important conversations about how motherhood might influence students’ career paths, so let’s write a case study (or three) that illustrates work-mom conundrums that famous HBS alums, such as Meg Whitman, Abigail Johnson, and Katrina Lake have faced. (There are already some existing case studies with fictional protagonists. In addition, some mothers who have gone through HBS have contributed posts or been written about on the school’s blog.)
Using real-life examples as the basis for first-year class discussion can prompt important conversations about how motherhood might influence students’ career paths while also providing examples of successful working mothers.
These discussions make better managers out of both men and women
Many HBS graduates will be managing teams that include women of child-bearing age. In today’s war for talent, how we incorporate them into our teams, motivate them, and retain them is essential, and understanding their perspective is an important first step. There are many questions that arise during pregnancy and after birth that relate to the intersection of work and motherhood. During pregnancy, women might wonder, for example, how and when to tell their manager and team that they’re expecting. They might worry who will take care of their responsibilities while they’re on maternity leave, and whether their job will still be there when they come back. (Incidentally, it’s illegal for an employer to fire a woman because she is pregnant.) There are also plenty of post-partum logistical concerns, including pumping breast milk during the workday and leaving work to pick up the baby from childcare.
Knowing these concerns can help managers partner with employees to craft a successful plan for maternity leave and returning to work. What’s more, these concerns may prompt a different set of questions for the manager, including: What are my responsibilities to a new mother when she comes back? What laws govern my state regarding pumping or nursing? How do I reorganize my team when one or more team members is away for an extended period of time, and how do I motivate my team in the process?
From a business’s perspective, there are moral, emotional, and fiscal issues that can arise from an employee’s pregnancy, all of which might be challenging for new managers. To explore the different perspectives, students could discuss cases written about managing pregnant employees in required classes.
On a broader level, these case discussions could serve students who will go on to shape their companies’ maternity leave and parental policies. The United States is notorious for not offering paid parental leave. While there are debates about whether this is good or bad for business, many high-profile businesses are extending their parental leaves in the hopes of retaining talent. Being able to craft policies that are good for both the business and the employees is an important skill. I don’t know if any company has found the right balance yet, but Harvard Business School’s classrooms are definitely a good place to start thinking about it.
Having and raising a child can be an invisible obstacle in all women’s career paths, not just for those seeking CEO roles. Harvard Business School is uniquely positioned to ease that obstacle and to nurture more female CEOs. As a leading business educator, HBS can discuss effective strategies for being a working mom with both students and alums. The institution can also build an ecosystem of managers who can empower parents in the workplace and design pro-business policies for retaining them. These initiatives can better prepare women to become CEOs and leaders.
When I think about the rest of my career, I imagine holding a C-level role in a business while also being a mother who is fully engaged with her family. I hope I can see this dream into reality, and I hope, when the time comes, that my daughter has no doubt that she can be both a mom and a CEO if she chooses to be.