Initial results from a new Harvard University report find that alumnae may have degrees from one of the best Ivy Leagues, but they still don’t have it all. That could change if men and women were clear with themselves and each other about their expectations and aspirations.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of women being admitted into Harvard University’s Business School MBA program co-authors Robin Ely, Pamela Stone, and Colleen Ammerman wanted to look at the career outcomes of men and women who graduated from a very selective and demanding program designed to prepare them for leadership positions.

The authors’ initial findings focus on MBAs, the largest share of their survey sample of more than 25,000 Harvard Business School (HBS) graduates. MBA respondents are still in the workplace and represent those who are Baby Boomers (ages 49–67), Generation X (ages 32–48), and Millennials (ages 26–31). Ely, Stone, and Ammerman explain in this month’s Harvard Business Review that:

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

The authors found that among Generation X and Baby Boomers—those who’ve been in the workforce longer—men and women similarly prioritized as most important the happiness of their families, a positive work/life balance, and community service. In terms of career priorities, men and women similarly placed high importance on doing meaningful work and opportunities for career growth and development.

Yet higher proportions of men across all three generations reported high satisfaction levels with their experiences of meaningful work, career growth opportunities, and work/life balance, 50-60 percent of men compared to 40-50 percent of women.

One interesting aspect of the authors’ analysis is that in spite of a majority of respondents acknowledging that they are in relationships that value men and women’s careers equally:

…more-traditional arrangements did win out. Healthy majorities of Gen X and Baby Boom women took responsibility for most of the child care in their families. Even higher percentages of Gen X and Baby Boom men reported having spouses who did so. …

Women who started out with egalitarian expectations but ended up in more traditional arrangements felt less satisfied with how their careers have progressed than did women who both expected and experienced egalitarian partnerships at home. And in general, women tended to be less satisfied than men with their career growth—except for those whose careers and child care responsibilities were seen as equal to their partners’. Conversely, men who expected traditional arrangements but found themselves in egalitarian relationships were less satisfied with their career growth than were their peers in more-traditional arrangements, perhaps reflecting an enduring cultural ideal wherein men’s work is privileged. Indeed, traditional partnerships were linked to higher career satisfaction for men, whereas women who ended up in such arrangements were less satisfied, regardless of their original expectations. (Emphasis added.)

Compared to many analyses that simply assume gender bias is responsible for the disparity between men and women in career leadership roles, Ely, Stone, and Ammerman’s approach is refreshing:

We don’t mean to suggest that no relationship exists between individuals’ choices regarding work and family and their career outcomes. But what is clear is that the conventional wisdom doesn’t tell the full story. 

The authors’ casual aside that men’s work is assumed to be “privileged”  is disappointing. Nevertheless, given that younger alumni aren’t much different than their predecessors in work/life expectations indicates that the standard gender bias explanation isn't a saloution:

Whereas three-quarters of Millennial women anticipate that their careers will be at least as important as their partners’, half the men in their generation expect that their own careers will take priority. And whereas two-thirds of Millennial men expect that their partners will handle the majority of child care, just under half—42%—of Millennial women expect that they themselves will do so.

We can’t help noting that 42% is still a sizable proportion, and these young women may find—as Gen X and Baby Boom women apparently did—that shouldering most of the child rearing hinders equal career importance. 

These initial findings are as refreshing for what they do say and what they don’t (namely, gender bias explains women’s lot in life). They also point to something far more fundamental when it comes to a positive work/life balance.

Men and women need to talk to each other about what their expectations are—and speak up when they believe that their agreements based on those expectations aren’t being honored. That honesty and candor would go a long way toward building happy lives both in and out of the workplace.