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When I Was in B-School Balance Was a ‘Woman’s Issue.’ Here’s What Changed

February 3, 2016, 3:00 PM UTC
Carla Ten Eyck Carla Ten Eyck Photography 2010

As a working mother, I generally say “and” more than “or.” That basic formula, so familiar to many women, means putting as much on my plate as possible and hoping nothing falls off—or at least nothing that would lead to catastrophe. Sometimes I have to assure clients that a conference call will be just as effective as an in-person meeting so that I can be in town for parent-teacher conferences. Other times I have to pray to the travel gods that my flight will land in time for that big musical performance.

Lately, though, I’ve talked about this everyday challenge as much with working fathers as I have with mothers. In fact, our latest research at Bain & Company shows that integrating work and personal life isn’t just a woman’s issue anymore. Our recent survey of more than 1,500 young U.S. business school students and graduates finds that both men and women count on having flexible careers that provide room for life outside of the office.

A roughly equal number of students at leading MBA programs (50% of women and 51% of men) say that they plan to emphasize non-work commitments over career progression. And 44% of men envision a career path that will allow them to take breaks compared with 52% of women.

This longing for rich, multidimensional lives might seem obvious to the millennial generation. But when I started analyzing the survey responses, it hit me how much the world has changed since I earned my MBA from Stanford in 1993.

Stanford’s curriculum and on-campus experiences gave me great opportunities to work on core business and personal leadership skills. But there were few extended conversations about being part of a dual-career couple or explorations of how both you and your partner could meld work and family.

Work-life balance conversations took place almost exclusively among women on campus, usually as part of our Women in Management club meetings. I rarely talked with male colleagues about the challenges of striking this balance, nor did I notice men discussing the topic among themselves.

At my five-year MBA reunion, that gender divide persisted. I was struck by how many of my female alumni colleagues had put their careers on hold to stay at home with young children, while almost none of the men had made that choice.

Today, young people just assume that they have more options and talk openly about them. Men ask about attending events organized for women. More men say that they don’t want to shoulder the primary income responsibility for their entire life. Men and women alike discuss aspirations outside of work, the importance of family or community or spirituality, and the desire to pursue some other personal passion.

I think this desire for complex, nonlinear lives will intensify. And employers must pay attention as they compete to attract the next generation of leaders. Companies need to do more than just talk about flexibility. They also need to demonstrate that they have a work culture and management team that embrace multiple paths to the top. Millennials want working models that may include part-time employment, leaves of absence, telecommuting, and job sharing.

These perspectives can be hard for older or traditionally-minded executives to accept and enact. Many corporate cultures explicitly or implicitly reward long hours and other signals of hard-charging behavior. That can leave young professionals to feel that they’re slacking off or displeasing supervisors when they have other commitments. For instance, as millennials’ perspectives and priorities have permeated Bain, we have responded with training that pushes people to think about what it means to them to thrive in all dimensions of their lives and helps them develop a plan to make that aspiration a reality.

Individual managers are on the hook as well. Managers must acknowledge that the men and women on their teams have commitments outside of work, and help all their team members find a balance that works.

Our previous research shows that few women in companies get meaningful career support from their direct managers—mostly men—who may be oblivious to their role in maintaining a diverse talent pipeline. Some women told us their direct supervisors don’t know their career aspirations or what to say or do to support them. Others reported receiving feedback such as, “You’re not cut out” for top management, or, “You don’t really want it.”

Too often, managers never discuss the goals, career strategies, job satisfaction or overall trajectory of their female team members. What’s more, they very rarely give these women any real encouragement. This occurs in a business culture that rarely celebrates women as role models. While every insecure overachiever needs career encouragement, our research clearly demonstrates that men get it more frequently than women.

Companies and their managers can either keep up with the changes in priorities, or watch talent go elsewhere in the years to come.

Julie Coffman is a partner at Bain & Company.