What are the real differences between high-achieving men and women? In honor of the 50th anniversary of the admission of women to Harvard Business School (HBS), Robin Ely, Pamela Stone and Colleen Ammerman sought to find out, surveying more than 25,000 HBS graduates. Writing in Harvard Business Review, they say they found that “the conventional wisdom about women’s careers doesn’t always square with reality.”

Women and men were in agreement in their definitions of success and in their valuations of key dimensions of professional life. But female HBS graduates are less satisfied with their careers than their male counterparts. “Whereas about 50% to 60% of men across the three generations told us they were “extremely satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their experiences of meaningful work, professional accomplishments, opportunities for career growth, and compatibility of work and personal life, only 40% to 50% of women were similarly satisfied on the same dimensions,” they write.

Why do some women’s careers stall? Some prevailing beliefs about the causes proved unsupported, the writers say. One is that women value their careers less and “opt out” to raise families. But Ely, Stone and Ammerman’s research revealed that only 11% of Gen X and Baby Boom women are out of the workforce to care for children full-time. Among women of color that figure was just 7%. Among those who do choose to leave to devote themselves to motherhood, “the vast majority leave reluctantly and as a last resort, because they find themselves in unfulfilling roles with dim prospects for advancement.” Some women said they felt passed over or “mommy-tracked” when they returned from maternity leave.

Do women blunt their career prospects by taking off time for parenting? The research found that 28% of Gen X and 44% of Baby Boom women had taken at least one break longer than six months. Among men in those generations that figure was 2%.

But that doesn’t explain the gender gap in senior management. “In fact, both men and women in top management teams were typically more likely than those lower down in the hierarchy to have made career decisions to accommodate family responsibilities,” they write. “We even looked at whether simply being a parent—aside from any career changes or decisions related to parenting—made a difference. It did not.”

Those findings are surprising, the authors admit, but they believe the results suggest that more research into how men and women navigate family and career decisions is needed. “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,” they write.

Ely, Stone and Ammerman’s complete Harvard Business School article can be found here. Their research touches on a number of other interesting topics, including whether women’s and men’s expectations for work and family differ and whether results for Millennials fit with those for Gen X and Baby Boom HBS graduates.

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