Gender and the MBA: Differences in Career Trajectories, Institutional Support, and Outcomes

By Sarah E. Patterson & Sarah Damaske

In 2013, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg directed women to “lean in” at work by taking individual initiative to move into leadership positions. While Sandberg acknowledges that women are behind men in terms of promotion and pay, she suggested these gender differences could be explained primarily by the choices women were making at work. Sociologists have long been skeptical of such an individual framing, as we were. In the study described here, we seek to understand the primary factors driving gender differences among MBA graduates, asking: do women’s and men’s pathways diverge following completion of the MBA program? If so, how and why do they diverge? Using 10 to 12 years of life history information from 74 MBA graduates of an elite University, we traced men’s and women’s work patterns after they graduated with their MBA, seeking to identify places of similarity and difference across gender.

Image by Guillaume Coqueblin via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

While historically, men followed “lockstep” career paths where they graduated from school and went to work for the same company through retirement, we found that such stability with one employer was largely a thing of the past; only 26 percent of MBA men and 32 percent of MBA women followed a lockstep path. In today’s brave new world, most of our respondents had between four to six employers in their first 10-12 years out of graduate school, our transitory category. Women were underrepresented in this category: 50 percent of women compared to 70 percent of men had had a minimum of three employers in about a decade. Women were overrepresented in our third category, exit, which was comprised of a small group of graduates who had left the workforce entirely before the time of the interview (18 percent of women compared to only 4 percent of men). Although workforce exits are popularly touted as the key difference between men’s and women’s employment, our study found this to be the smallest group for both men and women, which explained only a small portion of the differing experiences between genders.

While the paths that men and women took after graduate school were important, we also wanted to know where these paths led them. Did they find success or did their careers stall? Using the MBA graduates own language, we focused in on two career outcomes: “accelerated” versus “stalled” careers.  We defined careers as accelerated if the workers were currently employed in a permanent position and reported continued salary growth; people in these jobs told us that the received frequent increases in pay, title promotion, or company recognition. The people who had stalled careers were not so lucky; people in stalled careers had, in the past year,  faced unemployment or non-employment, were not in a permanent position, or had reported a decrease in their most recent salary (not including yearly fluctuations in bonuses). The people in these jobs often said that they lacked power in their organizations and they reported an inability to move up via promotion or pay.

Importantly, we did not find that men simply surged ahead of women in all cases. Instead, the women on the lockstep path (that traditional one or two employer path that is becoming rarer) found themselves on accelerated pathways next to their counterparts who were men.  The key to success for workers was a mix of workplace factors, including clear and openly communicated paths to promotions (including bumps in title and pay) and a supportive workplace which included a positive working relationship with bosses and informal and formal workplace policies. Both men and women who left work were clearly in stalled careers (almost all of them had had careers stalls before they left).

Discouragingly, gender differences were most prominent on the transitory path (the most common career path that we found). Women who had multiple employers were much more likely to have stalled careers than were the men on the transitory path, who were much more likely to have accelerated careers. We suspect that gender may become more important when a person’s job tenure is shorter—the less well a person is known in an organization, the more stereotypes about gender and motherhood may come into play.

As job instability increasingly characterizes even jobs at the highest echelons, our findings that job transitions seems to lead to greater gender inequity is troubling. (See here and here.) Less career acceleration could mean potential negative long term career outcomes for both men and women, but especially women.  Our skepticism about the individual drive emphasized by Sandberg was confirmed in our findings: structural forces at work were key in shifting careers upward or downward. Yet despite this discouraging news, our findings also suggest ways in which businesses can shift their priorities to create working environments that benefit both men and women. We believe clearer pathways to promotion that are regularly scheduled and automatic if goals are met go a long way in moving women up at similar rates to men. Flexible scheduling and standard hours benefitted both men and women in our study. Finally, companies need to examine the challenges women face when making lateral moves between companies and create more standardized responses to support such careers.

Sarah Patterson’s work focuses on family demography. Her dissertation investigates family structure and intergenerational transfers from adult children to their parents. She is currently a PhD candidate at The Pennsylvania State University and will be starting a postdoctoral research position at the University of Western Ontario in the fall. Her research has been published in top journals, including Journal of Marriage and Family and Social Science Research. Sarah Damaske is an associate professor of Labor and Employment Relations, Sociology, and Women’s Studies and research associate of the Population Research Institute at The Pennsylvania State University. Her research focuses on how work and family transitions lead to cumulating inequalities over the life course. Dr. Damaske’s first book, For the Family? How Class and Gender Shape Women’s Work (Oxford University Press, 2011) was named one of the “most influential books published on the family since 2000” by Contemporary Sociology. Currently, with the support of grants from the National Science Foundation and the American Sociological Association, Dr. Damaske is writing her second book examining gender and class differences in job loss and unemployment.  Their full article can be found in the 31 (3) issue of Gender & Society.


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