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Before heading off to high-pressure careers, both male and female MBAs explore how they can save bandwidth for their families

By Margaret Steen

For Stanford’s ambitious MBA students, Myra H. Strober’s Work and Family course can be full of aha moments. They hear, for example, that women who wait to have children may have trouble conceiving, and that child care can take a big chunk out of a manager’s income or eat up the whole income of some workers. Yet the cost of not working can be greater. And even workers without children may face challenges balancing work and family, including care for adult relatives.

For those not currently in business school, it may be surprising that the course exists at all or that the proportion of men enrolled in it has grown to 40%.

“The men are fully engaged here,” said Strober, professor emerita of education with a courtesy appointmented as a professor of economics at the Business School.. Some are motivated by a desire to be a good father; others want to understand workplace barriers that affect their wives, friends, or employees.

Enrollees in the 10-week course are almost exclusively second-year MBA students, whose “thoughts have turned to life after the GSB,” Strober said.

Strober started teaching the course — then titled Women and Work — in 1972, to undergraduates and a handful of female MBA students. Later, she taught it at Stanford’s School of Education. She started teaching the renamed course at the GSB in the early 2000s.

Students write two group papers, one on combining work and family and one on elder care, plus one individual paper on a topic of their choice. Through readings, lectures, class discussions, and talks by guest speakers, students look at the challenges and explore strategies for dealing with them. “A lot of women and men in the class have very, very strong career goals”, Strober said. “They want to be successful at their careers, successful financially, and also have a family.”

One example is Collin R. Hathaway, MBA ’07, founder of Skylight Capital, who was one of the men in the class two years ago. He returned this year, along with his Kellogg MBA wife, as a panelist. “My perfect relationship, if you’d asked me and I’d been really honest, was with a beautiful, smart woman with an MBA who then wants to stop everything and put me first,” he said.
“It sounds cool, but it’s not a fair or reasonable request of someone you care about.”

Hathaway said the class which he counts among the most valuable courses he took at the Business School changed his thinking on balancing his career goals, political aspirations and family life. One idea that was new to him: looking at earnings over the long term, not just in a given year. Because workers who stop out generally earn less later on, dropping out of the workforce to save on child care costs can be costly. (See related story.)

Strober lists other strategies used by high-performing workers — usually women — to make family life more manageable. Some have only one child. Some have “who play a bigger role in the family than most husbands,” she said.

Guest speaker Sandy Takahashi Shirai, MBA ’89, Northern Pacific regional managing director for Deloitte Consulting, talks to the students about the pros and cons of having children later rather than earlier. “If you’re the boss, it’s easier to be flexible, and you have more financial flexibility,” said Shirai, who had her daughter at 40. On the other hand, having children later is physically harder she said.

As Deloitte’s lead partner on the HP-Compaq merger, Shirai said she worked “night and day on the biggest technology merger in history” before and after her daughter was born. Then Michael Capellas moved from Compaq CEO to WorldCom MCI CEO and asked Shirai (and Deloitte to work for him in Virginia. Shirai’s daughter was a baby broken her leg.

“I was very tempted not to do the job,” Shirai said. “On the other hand, I was very dedicated to Michael and his need to have the company emerge from bankruptcy. Thousands of peoples’ jobs depended on it.”

Her husband a dentist couldn’t leave his practice. “I would never ask him to give up something he loves doing,” Shirai said. So he and their daughter stayed near their extended families in California. Later, a colleague asked Shirai what she had done for her husband. Shirai said she had taken him out for dinner. The colleague said, “’No, no, that’s not big enough. You’ve got to get him a boat,’” Shirai recalled. She protested that her husband doesn’t like boats, but she got the point: “I was taking my husband for granted. When other people help you, you need to absolutely make sure you acknowledge it.”

Some workers choose their field with work life balance in mind. Steve Dostart, MBA ’90, president of Dostart Development Co. in Palo Alto, tells students how he decided to go into real estate development after a summer internship in finance.

“I liked the excitement,” of finance, he said. But when he asked one vice president whom he admired how he balanced work and family, the man started laughing. He said he was going to sneak away from a work event that evening to attend his daughter’s sixth birthday party. “I saw him at six o’clock, darting out through the cubicles, putting his head down so no one would see him,” Dostart said. “I decided that’s not going to be me.”

Lindsey Maynard Cooksen, MBA ’09, however, is drawn to finance. An advisor at Morgan Stanley, easier to go back to work after having children if she is doing work she loves. In the class, she learned “there’s no silver bullet to managing a lifestyle with two working parents but if you can make it work it’s beneficial to both your marriage and your children.”

Dostart and his wife, Sharon Meers, also talk about building a marriage based on equal sharing of household work and importance placed on their careers. “It’s a mindset that says dads are equally important to kids, and moms need careers as much as men do,” said Meers, a former managing director at Goldman Sachs and the co-author of the book Getting to 50/50.

Not everyone follows the same model for having children. Sharon Tetlow, MBA ’86, senior vice president and chief financial officer at Cell Genesys Inc. adopted a child as a single mother. Although she continues to work full time at a high level job, she has taken a job closer to home and less demanding than she might have otherwise. “Stepping back in my career is just not something I ever planned to do,” she said. “Talking on a child completely changes your ability to focus on your career.

Some parents find that the demands of parenthood are not compatible with high powered careers and they opt out of the workforce at least for a time. One of the class sessions has a panel of graduates who are current and former stay at home moms and dads.

“We talk a lot about whether or not people have a moral obligation to work and remain in their field given that they’ve taken up a slot at the GSB,” Strober said. If they do, she adds, then do employers have a corresponding obligation to try to make the workplace more accommodating to workers with families?

“The women in the class feel very strongly that they don’t want to be pushed into working,” Strober said. “They don’t want people to tell them that if they need to leave the workplace, they have sinned in some way.”

In recent years, the course has added discussion of elder care, a subject that’s important even to students who don’t plan to have children. “It was really not on many people’s minds that all of a sudden you could have four parents to deal with,” Cooksen said.

Guest speaker Esther Koch, MBA ’79, a gerontologist and elder care advisor, encourages students to think not just about practical issues but about the emotional ones: “How would you like it if your kids come to you and say you can’t drive? How do you want to be treated when you’re older?”

She also emphasizes that “elder care is not child care for the aged.” With children, the needs are usually predictable, revolve around logistics, and decrease over time. “With elders, the needs increases over time, are frequently emergency in nature, and involve more complex and emotional family dynamics,” said Kotch, who is president and founder of Encore Management.

Students in Strober’s course look at all these issues not just from a personal perspective but through the eyes of a manager. What does it mean to be leading a team or company where some workers are juggling family obligations?

Alumnus Hathaway runs a private equity firm that owns and manages a plumbing company. He has lots of employees — mostly women who work in the call center — who have to take time off because their children are sick. “This class made me a little more empathetic about what our employees face,” he said.

A big part of the class is students sharing their own experiences and ideas. When the class is discussing whether it’s a good idea to leave the workforce while your children are young, students whose parents are divorced speak up about their mothers’ struggles to support themselves.

“They are very vocal about telling the other women in the class to keep their skills alive if they drop out of the workplace,” Strober said.

Cooksen said she enjoyed hearing about how her classmates were raised: some by nannies, some by single parents, some by stay-at-home moms. “I think it was very advantageous to see, one, that all of those methods are used and, two, that all of those children turned
out just fine,” she said.

At one evening session, students were invited to bring their significant others. They questioned a panel of three couples, all students or recent MBA graduates: When you’re both job-hunting at the same time and one gets an offer, do you accept it without knowing if your partner will have work in that city? How do you handle your finances: Is money pooled or do you each have separate accounts?

Many of the questions the course raises haven’t changed over the years. “But I think our answers become more and more sophisticated,” Shirai said, as more women reach the top levels of corporate America.

Meers agreed. “What Myra is doing is revolutionary in the best sense. If every university in the country did it, corporate America would be dramatically more productive and save billions in needless turnover.”

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Also on Stanford Knowledgebase:

  1. Ways to Calculate Costs of Break from Paid Work
  2. How to Steer Your Career Around Life’s Curves
  3. A Career Coach Can Help Keep Your Professional Life in Shape

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