Getting Back on Course

When HBS professor Myra M. Hart found that a substantial number of the school's women graduates were not currently in the full-time workforce, she came up with a plan.
by Martha Lagace

When Harvard Business School dean Kim B. Clark returned from a road tour a couple of years ago, he had some important issues he wanted to discuss with Professor Myra M. Hart.

Evidence—granted, most of it anecdotal—was mounting to show that a substantial number of the School's women graduates were not currently in the full-time workforce. Many of the women who chose to leave their professional careers had approached Clark during his recent visits with alumni groups. They told him they felt disconnected from business and from HBS after leaving full-time work to raise children and care for their families.

As Professor of Management Practice and co-head of the HBS Entrepreneurial and Service Management unit, Myra Hart has been particularly interested in women in business. Since joining the faculty in 1995, she has created both executive education and MBA courses for women. Hart believes that the choice women make to leave and re-enter the workforce is just one of many gender-related issues that has long needed understanding. Though it's not unique to executives, it is a particularly compelling subject for MBA women who have made heavy investments of time and money in their education and who have also made a clear declaration that "this is the kind of path I want to take."

Some of the participants were quick to make it clear, 'We don't want to see superstars.'
—Myra M. Hart

A message to Clark from one alumna clinched his decision that HBS had to act. Denise Condon Welsh (HBS MBA '81) had been getting together every year since graduation for a long weekend with ten of her female classmates. She observed that most of her friends dropped out of the workforce at some point in their post-HBS lives.

Welsh didn't have a hard time understanding the choice her colleagues made to spend time at home. What baffled her was this: Even though her friends were reaching the point in their children's lives when they could go back to work, they weren't doing so. They weren't getting geared up and saying, "I can hardly wait to get back to the work force."

"Welsh wondered why this was happening and if this wasn't a huge waste of talent," Hart said. "The Dean and I discussed what HBS could do to reconnect with these women and to help them in one way or another to make a transition back into satisfying work—if that was their choice."

The Myth Of Superwoman

Thanks to intense discussions over dinners with alumnae—the first of which was hosted by Welsh in New York—and to later conversations with faculty and other colleagues at HBS, Hart came up with a plan. The result is Charting Your Course, a new program designed to help HBS alumnae plan their own work and family life strategy.

Charting Your Course debuted in May 2000 when fifty alumnae, most of them from the MBA reunion classes of '81, '86 and '91, met on campus for two days. Hart, who like Welsh is a member of the HBS class of 1981, was pleased with the turnout and the positive feedback. Based on the success of the beta test program, she expects the program to run again. "Next time," she said, "it will not be in Boston but rather in alumnae hot spots such as New York and possibly San Francisco, Chicago, or Los Angeles. Washington, D.C. and Atlanta are also possibilities." Though developed as a program for Harvard alumnae, Charting Your Course could become a model for similar programs offered to interested women elsewhere.

Data collected from women in the reunion classes of 1981, 1986, and 1991 indicates that only 38 percent of the respondents from the three classes are currently working full time. (Of those who ticked "at home," 36 percent are working part time.) For all those who indicated that they do plan to return to full-time work, Hart says, "few, really less than 10 percent, want to go back to following a traditional Harvard Business School career path."

Most (61 percent) responded that they intend to pursue careers involving very different goals and structures. According to one alumna, "I want flexibility. No more than 9 hours a day. [I want] work that is challenging and that I am passionate about." Many of the women specified a desire to work for organizations whose goals were compatible with their own values and to have more control over the calendar and the clock when they return to the workplace.

Since Charting Your Course is designed to help alumnae assess their options and develop their own personal models of success, the first step in the process is introspection, followed by a creative and savvy approach to one's actual next career move. In the May program, participants spent time in intensive groups. Dr. Timothy Butler, director of MBA Career Development Programs, opened the session and provided tools to help participants reflect on their own goals. Later, career expert Pam Lassiter offered practical advice on career planning. The women then broke into small groups to begin using the tools and getting feedback from each other. It was the very personal work that went on in these sections that turned out to be the participants' favorite part, according to Hart.

Hart discussed entrepreneurship as an alternative to corporate careers. "But," she explained, "I was careful to disabuse them of the idea that being an entrepreneur puts you in control. It doesn't. Every entrepreneur's real control depends on the intensity of the business and the number and kinds of partners."

HBS professors Linda A. Hill and Nancy F. Koehn led participants through two case studies of dynamic female business leaders. One of them, Taran Swan (HBS MBA '91), was a rising executive at Nickelodeon, the children's TV channel, who successfully managed her career while coping with a high-risk pregnancy. The other was Estée Lauder, founder of the cosmetics empire that bears her name.

While the traditional HBS case method instruction asks students to put themselves in a manager's shoes and solve a business problem, Hill's and Koehn's approach was slightly different. They encouraged the alumnae to grapple with the real-life choices made by both women in the cases.

Said Hart, "Some of the participants were quick to make it clear:'We don't want to see superstars.' But both Taran Swan and Estée Lauder were meant to point out that the superwoman is a myth. It is clear that there are prices people pay. And the women who came to the program were saying, 'My family is not going to pay that price.' They are willing to delay or revise their goals for professional achievement.

"It's possible to have both family satisfaction and professional success," Hart asserts. "However, you may focus your energy more intensively on one of these goals at a time. Some of the women in the program talked about living their lives in chapters, while others held a vision of life as a mosaic."

One insight she and her colleagues gained from offering the program was that women want to hear more about each other's experiences. "An idea for future sessions of Charting Your Course," Hart says, "is to present a panel in which the women themselves talk about their strategies and real-life adventures. Hearing from colleagues who have made different choices and who are at different stages in the process would provide a variety of perspectives and enable alumnae to learn from each other's experiences, not just from HBS faculty or professionals."

Breaking The Hardest Stereotypes

Is the work world ready to accept returning MBAs who want challenge in tandem with flexibility? Hart admits that not many firms have successfully developed such arrangements yet, though some industries and specific employers are working very hard at this. She thinks the numbers of employers in need of big talent will put pressure on them to become more flexible. There may also be changes as senior decision makers are replaced by younger counterparts who have grown up in a different context. Things will change when people break their own stereotypes of what is possible in the work world.

For the individual women who are thinking about professional re-entry, it's often hard to break the frame of "what is now" to think about "what could be," Hart says. For example, a marketing professional in a high tech firm may be frustrated by the job's demands for constant travel. She may come to the conclusion that she cannot continue to use her marketing skills and experience and raise a family successfully. However, she could apply that same stock of marketing skills with a local or regional company, eliminate or minimize the travel time, and have more time and flexibility for her family. Once priorities are clear, it becomes much easier to look for work/family combinations that will be satisfying now and will provide the platform for different options in the future.

Sequential careers are becoming the norm for both men and women. "The belief that 'I have one employer or even one career path for life' has been shattered by the changes of the 80s, the downsizing, the outsourcing, the enormous focus on entrepreneurship as an alternative," she says. "If you believe that you're going to have a serial career, then there's less threat to cutting back on one point. I think my generation believed in the linear trajectory career model. We believed that if you got off the track, you weren't going to get back on."

"I believe that what we're doing at Harvard—and what other business schools are trying to do—is change the models that people create in their minds. We are doing that in the way we write cases, the way we present role models, the way we talk more frankly about business in the context of a life rather than business as a life," Hart says.

About the Author

Martha Lagace is senior editor of Working Knowledge.