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Employees value work-life balance, study finds, but businesses slow to adapt

If companies want to attract and keep talented young workers, they may need to create more flexible paths upward for employees who care about their home lives — and that goes for men and women alike. This is one takeaway from a new Bain & Co. study of MBA students and recent graduates of the country’s top business schools, which found that nearly equal numbers of both genders plan to put family before career, and that many men and women envision a career path that allows for breaks.

In the survey of 1,500 students and graduates, the majority of men and women (68 percent and 69 percent, respectively) said they want to reach top management positions. At the same time, just over half of the respondents — 51 percent of men and 50 percent of women — said they plan to prioritize “non-work commitments” over career progression. Both genders saw the trade-off between career advancement and other life priorities as the biggest obstacle to reaching their professional goals.

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Though the new study was specific to MBAs, the findings likely apply more broadly within professional organizations, said lead author Julie Coffman, a partner in Bain’s Chicago office. Work-life issues may come into particularly sharp focus with business school grads, as many land jobs requiring grueling hours, particularly earlier in their careers.

The shared desire for work-life balance among both genders presents a challenge to companies, said Coffman, who also chairs Bain’s Global Women’s Leadership Council.

“Now that this has become an everybody issue, not just a women’s issue, it could lead to real innovation in the workplace,” she said. “This could be a wake-up call for organizations with a rigid approach to getting to the top.”

While young men and women may start their careers with similar ambitions and desire for balance, research has suggested this may shift in response to what they find in the workplace. A 2014 Bain study found that slightly more women than men aspired for a top management position when starting out at a company, but over time, this share of women dropped dramatically, even as the share of men eyeing a top job stayed the same. Marriage and kids didn’t play a significant role in discouraging workers, but their concerns about not meeting “ideal worker” stereotypes (i.e., working long hours, staying reachable by phone or e-mail) and not having supportive supervisors did.

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Another study, released last month by McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.org, also found that women’s desire for a top job decreased over time compared to men’s, and suggests that the road to the top may be disproportionately stressful for women. Having kids didn’t detract from ambition — mothers were in fact more likely to want a top executive role than were women without children. Yet women were nearly three times more likely than men to say they’d missed out on promotions, assignments, or raises because of their gender, and fewer than half of employees said their company’s CEO prioritized gender diversity. The study also found that many employees — women and men alike — don’t use flexible arrangements, such as part-time schedules or leaves of absence, even when they’re available, perhaps out of fear of being penalized.

With a new crop of men and women entering the workforce, it remains to be seen whether and how the picture will change. The latest Bain study sends the message that companies should take preferences for balance and flexibility to heart, or risk losing talent, Coffman said. Making “significant cultural changes” such as allowing flexible options without jeopardizing chances for advancement, and valuing results more than sheer hours at a desk, could be steps in the right direction.

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“Organizations should ask if there are there multiple pathways employees can take to the top, rather than one straight and narrow path, and if they can scale back depending on what’s happening in their lives,” Coffman said. “Companies should also strive for leadership that doesn’t all look the same, that doesn’t fit into a very rigid set of boxes.”


Ami Albernaz can be reached at ami.albernaz@gmail.com.