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Exclusive: More than half of MBAs say they will put family before career

Oct 12, 2015

Today's MBA students just want to get a life—or at least keep the one they have.

A new study from Bain & Company puts another nail in the coffin of the outdated stereotype that work-life balance is a women's issue. When Bain asked 1,500 MBA students and graduates what they want out of their careers, 50% of men and 51% of women said they "plan to prioritize nonwork commitments over career progression."

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Similarly, when asked about the biggest obstacle to reaching their career goals, by far the most common concern is that keeping some balance in their lives would derail their career dreams. Forty-two percent of the male MBAs and 40% of the female MBAs report having this anxiety.

The sexes are also on the same page when it comes to how they define career success—at least in regard to their number one answer. Both men (50%) and women (62%) overwhelmingly listed "impact" as their primary career goal. However, for men the next most common answer was wealth (37%). No 2. for women? Knowledge, which was selected by 35% of female respondents.

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Julie Coffman, author of the report and chair of Bain’s global women’s leadership council, says the survey indicates that MBAs have jettisoned the old idea "of putting blinders on and only marching up the career ladder." She believes that the fact that the men and women in the study are so closely aligned when it comes to seeking balance bodes well for the future of work. "The more everyone shares this ambition, the closer we get to real change," says Coffman.

Given the concerns of the MBAs in this study, it seems clear that there's a need for America to rethink its work culture. Coffman points out that 80% of women and nearly 70% of men polled say they intend to have a joint parenting role once they have a family. "That starts to raise the question: Is it really feaseable to parent and to have a big job—at least the way those jobs are structured today?," she says.

Both MBA programs and employers would do well to heed the results of this survey, says Coffman.

For b-schools, there’s an opportunity to offer more courses, seminars and other programs that directly address the challenges of fusing family and a high-powered career. According to Coffman, no top school currently offers a full course on balancing work and life. MBA programs could tap anything from role playing exercises to interactions with alums to help provide students with balancing tools, she says. “Lay the groundwork that will help [students] prioritize,” she says.

Companies, on the other hand, must begin to broaden the way they define and celebrate success, says Coffman. Rather than simply rewarding employees who work long, punishing hours—a major contribution of the gender wage gap, according to Harvard economist Claudia Goldin—they could focus on developing flexible models of working that allow people to take different paths to the top. They might also look for ways to recognize other, "softer" accomplishments. Bain, for instance, has an award for the employee that the most people say they'd like to work with again.

"We’re not saying people shouldn’t work hard—they should," says Coffman. "But the definition how how you work hard has to start looking different than it does right now."

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