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Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, shown with her husband, David Goldberg, wrote a recent bestselling book, Lean In, about gender imbalances in the workplace. A new report released Thursday in the Harvard Business Review 'suggests that the conventional wisdom about women’s careers doesn’t always square with reality.' (Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

Mismatched expectations about family demands are just as important as institutionalized sexism in the workplace when it comes to explaining the gender gap that holds women back in their careers, a Harvard study suggests.

A survey in the Harvard Business Review's report published Thursday asked 25,000 graduates in recent decades to talk about their experiences in their careers and lives after graduation.

"What our survey revealed suggests that the conventional wisdom about women’s careers doesn’t always square with reality," the authors said.

Professors Robin Ely, Pamela Stone and Colleen Ammerman co-authored the report, focusing particularly on 6,000 alumni who got MBAs from Harvard over the past several decades — a group with an admittedly privileged status, but also one that likely would have the greatest array of work and living options throughout their lives.

The findings were illuminating.

Much has been written on the topic of gender imbalances in the work world.

Just this week, a Canadian report found that less than one in five corporate board positions in Canada are currently held by women. That's actually a slight improvement from earlier levels, but still a poor showing in a country where the workforce is roughly equally made up of men and women.

Child-care expectations

One frequently cited explanation for the systemic bias against women is that women still do the majority of child rearing in Canada, which has held them back in other areas. But the Harvard study outlined evidence that that notion isn't actually true — and even when it is happening, it's not by choice.

The women and men in the study were in broad agreement about the things that matter to them in their working lives: Both cited “work that is meaningful and satisfying” and “professional accomplishments,” and the majority said “opportunities for career growth and development” were important to them, with women actually rating that aspect higher than men did.

But despite wanting the same things in a career, it doesn't take long for those ambitions to get stymied — at least if you're a woman.

The rates varied among age classes, but 50 to 60 per cent of men reported being "very satisfied" with their careers after graduation. That rate dropped to 40 to 50 per cent for women.

"Certain expectations regarding how couples will distribute career and family responsibilities may contribute to women’s stymied goals and lesser satisfaction," the study said.

There's a prevailing perception, the authors said, that when children come around, women "opt out" and choose to focus on raising children.

It's a belief that's widely held by both sexes. More than 70 per cent of women and more than 80 per cent of men in the study said voluntarily "prioritizing family over work" is a major factor that holds back women.

One 30-year-old alumna in the survey cited "deep-rooted attitudes that a woman should be the primary caregiver, so it is ‘understood’ that her career may have to take a back seat for a while as similar male colleagues move ahead at a more rapid pace."

But there's a big problem with that line of thinking. As the authors put it: "Here’s the kicker … It simply isn’t true."

Opting out?

In the 1990s, consultancy Deloitte & Touche had about 10 per cent female executives — despite a roughly even gender balance in lower ranks.

An executive at the company assumed that was because women "opted out" of their careers once they had children, but an internal investigation found 70 per cent of the women who left the firm were actually working full time — just, somewhere else. Only about 10 per cent of lower level employees had left the company to care for kids — and of those who did leave, they did so reluctantly because they were given unfulfilling part-time roles or otherwise "mommy-tracked" once they reached their prime child-rearing years.

That's owed as much to the work environment as the family situation. Because the study again revealed a fundamental problem with expectations.

A strong majority of male respondents said they expected their spouses' careers to take a back seat to theirs — but a majority of women said the same thing, which implies something has to give.

It's sadly not surprising which person's original ambitions were placed on the back burner when those two goals were at odds. "Many women’s expectations for career equality were disappointed," as the authors bluntly put it.

Progress is slow

While the figures were a little more equal among younger respondents, ultimately, there was still a significant disconnect.

"It is tempting to think that people launching their careers today will change the game," the authors said. "Unfortunately, we don’t think it’s quite that simple, given what we heard from millennial MBAs."

Two-thirds of millennial men in the survey still said they expected their partners to handle the majority of child-care requirements.

Even among professional couples with a more egalitarian arrangement at home, the study indicates, women face systemic discrimination that holds them back at work: Women survey respondents reported being given part-time work, flexible hours and unfulfilling roles often against their will or desire, solely based on their gender.

"The vast majority leave reluctantly and as a last resort, because they find themselves in unfulfilling roles with dim prospects for advancement," the study said. "The message that they are no longer considered 'players' is communicated in various, sometimes subtle ways."

As one respondent in her 30s put it: "I have thought about going to interviews without my [wedding and engagement] rings on so that an interviewer doesn’t get a preconceived notion of my dedication based upon where I might be in my life stage."

'Lean in'

Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg brought the issue to the forefront this year in her book Lean In, in which she urges women to break through the glass ceiling in a number of ways. And one of her enduring messages was to make sure their spouses are partners in every sense of the word.

But the Harvard study reaffirms the notion that action is needed on the issue, and not just from women themselves.

"Women are leaning in," the authors said. "It is now time … for companies to lean in."