Why the ‘Less Ambitious’ Man Is the Secret to Better Work-Life Balance for All

This post originally appeared in Huffington Post on 

Highly ambitious men are generally considered very desirable as both leaders and mates. But recent news out of Harvard Business School and the 10th Anniversary of National Work and Family Month got me thinking about how the “less ambitious” man is the real key to making better work-life balance — and gender equality — a reality. Let me explain.

In early September, the New York Times did a feature story titled, “Harvard Business School Case Study: Gender Equity.” The story showcased an aggressive experiment by arguably the world’s most prestigious business school to undergo a “gender makeover” and proactively address why women students — arriving with similar pedigrees to their male counterparts — soon fell behind.

The article argued that women, especially single women, often felt they had to choose between academic and social success. The article went on to highlight a female student, former president of her class at Columbia and a McKinsey consultant, and her concern that meeting someone at Harvard could be her last chance among cream-of-the-crop-type people. The men characterized in the article as being at the top of the heap worked in finance, drove luxury cars and advertised lavish weekend getaways on Instagram.

The article explored the dearth of female faculty at HBS and described male students who destroyed the confidence of female faculty by pelting them with math questions they couldn’t answer on the spot and commenting on what they wore. The most desirable male teachers were those who shared lessons on how to start a search fund, a high-risk and potentially lucrative vehicle for acquiring or launching a company. Of the nearly 40 classmates intending to start search funds after graduation, all but one was male.

My reaction to reading this article was visceral. I pondered:

• Are these the men that will be thoughtful and balanced leaders, nurturing fathers and caring husbands?

• Are these the men that will act as stewards for their organizations, be true partners in raising their children and enable their wives to pursue her ambitions?

• Are these the men that will make gender equality a reality in my children’s lifetime, if not in my own?

To these questions, my response was a resounding NO. This article highlighted what I see as the most salient barriers to gender equality — both at work and at home — and by extension, the ability to positively integrate family care and professional aspirations.

I come to this conversation from a unique perspective, informed by a front-row seat observing gender norms in action. My first career was in investment management, working as a research analyst and associate portfolio manager, followed by consulting on women’s advancement in business over nearly two decades to many of the most admired companies in the world. I earned my MBA at the Simmons School of Management, a business school launched in the late 1970’s by two former female HBS professors who sought to develop women leaders.

After many years in the trenches working to make gender equality real, I believe the greatest change will come from defining new role models of success. The men portrayed in the HBS article — as business leaders, husbands and fathers — powerfully reinforce the gender status quo.

A look at the family stats for nearly any large organization tells the same story: those at the top are overwhelmingly men with stay-at-home spouses. They represent the small fraction of the workforce — about 15% — in the ‘traditional’ family structure. Their lives bear little resemblance to the day-to-day realities of the women and men they lead, many of whom are dual-earner couples and single parents. Research has shown that men with wives who do not work outside the home are less likely to promote women than their colleagues with working wives. In my consulting over many years, I found people eagerly searching for role models that represent the more holistic reality of their lives as professionals and caregivers. They are looking for leaders who don’t just talk the talk but also walk the walk.

I often wonder whether talented women, like those at HBS, fully understand that their definition of the cream of the crop — men intensely focused on professional success — will likely provide little day-to-day support on the home front, often leading these same women to step out of the workforce because the pressure of “doing it all” feels too great once they have children. In Pamela Stone’s book Opting Out? Why women really quit careers and head home, she illuminates the career obstacles many highly talented women confront while being married to high-octane husbands in intensely demanding professions. According to research, the greater the differential in earnings between husbands and wives, the greater the likelihood they will revert to traditional gender roles.

If you think about it, the cycle is extraordinarily self-reinforcing. Jobs with few boundaries, many created and sustained by male leaders who perceive few professional costs as too high, require someone to be at home to make the system hum. Women, often earning less than their male counterparts (in part because they don’t feel able to prioritize work since they are doing nearly all the flexing after having children) step in to fill the gap.

In my book The Libra Solution — a metaphor for greater equity in the roles played by women and men BOTH at work and at home — I explore a far more egalitarian approach to career and family management. For many of the men I interviewed, their definition of success encompassed not only career achievement but also deep and active involvement in their children’s lives. What we need are men (and women) with a different vision, wanting to prioritize career and caring and willing to support structural changes in job design and work flow. If organizational leaders treated creating manageable jobs as a valid business priority, it would happen. The problem is one far more of will than of skill.

Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” I’m trying! My goal is to raise sons (currently ages 13 and 16) who embody gender equality in their thinking and in their actions and will become the kinds of leaders, husbands and fathers that I want to see more of in the world. My husband’s example provides a powerful model from which they can learn.

Gender equality will become a reality when men — and women — partner together to redefine success.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with our women’s conference, “The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power,” which took place in New York on June 6, 2013. To read all of the posts in the series and learn more about the conference, click here. Join the conversation on Twitter #ThirdMetric.

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