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This paper analyzes the career choices and trajectories of MBA graduates, and whether these vary by gender. Interviews with men and women twelve years after graduating with an MBA reveal that careers followed one of three pathways: (1) lockstep employment, in which graduates remain in the same job; (2) transitory employment, in which graduates transition between three or more jobs; and (3) career exit. Men and women followed the lockstep career path in similar numbers, however, their experiences with transitory employment and career exit differ. Through the transitory career pathway, men more often experienced an accelerated career and continued salary growth. By contrast, women following this career path more often experienced stalled careers, which included decreases in their most recent salary, or the inability to move up via promotion or pay. Women more frequently exited the workforce than men.


While women’s MBA graduation rates have increased significantly in the past 40 years, research demonstrates that female MBA holders lag behind their male counterparts with regard to pay and promotion. The authors of this study conducted 73 life history interviews with MBA graduates twelve years after graduation, in order to examine the factors contributing to diverging pathways of men and women who have similar starting points.

28 women and 45 men were interviewed about their college and early work trajectories; experiences with the MBA; work/family balance; life after the MBA; current work experiences; and future expectations.

The data revealed three distinct career pathways for MBA alumni: (1) lockstep careers, (2) transitory careers, and (3) exiting careers.

  • Lockstep careers – The majority of men and women experiencing this type of career path worked for a large employer, received multiple promotions, and remained with the same organization. Twenty-six percent of MBA men and 32 percent of MBA women were represented in this category. Both men and women following this trajectory indicated that promotions were relatively seamless and attainable in their work organizations. Also of importance was the workplace flexibility they were afforded, both through informal arrangements made with superiors, and through formal policies, such as parental leave, that were available.
  • Transitory careers – The majority of MBA graduates fell into the transitory career pathway category, with 70 percent of men and 50 percent of women have worked for between four and six employers within a ten-year period. Transitory workers more often reported obstacles to promotion that motivated them to seek out new employment opportunities. They also reported receiving little support from bosses for workplace flexibility. Subsequently, 25 percent of women and 15 percent of men in this group reported switching jobs to achieve better work/life balance. Notably, on this path, men fared better than women when moving to new organizations. Sixty-six percent of men in this group reported having accelerated careers, where they enjoyed continuous opportunities for promotion and salary increases as they transitioned between jobs. By contrast, the majority of women in this group (57 percent) reported having stalled careers, where opportunities for advancement between jobs was stagnant, and they did not experience salary raises as they moved between jobs.
  • Exiting careers – The exit career path represented the smallest number of MBA graduates. Eighteen percent of women and four percent of men reported leaving their careers altogether. Both women and men following the exit trajectory reported feeling sidelined in their career prior to exit. They reported leaving both due to work constraints, such as being laid off or generally unhappy in their previous position, as well as due to family obligations, such as needing to provide childcare or support elderly parents. The MBAs in this category did not anticipate returning to work, nor where they looking for job opportunities.

This study points to the significance of the transitory career pathway for a majority of MBA graduates, and how this trajectory differs for men and women.

When people have short work histories, gender may serve as a biased indicator of quality that employers use to assess female candidates.

In particular, women in their twenties and thirties may be stereotyped as less committed owing to their status (or would-be status) as mothers, and subsequently offered fewer vertical opportunities for advancement. This finding is important for career specializations beyond the MBA, given that tenure at any one company is increasingly shorter for a wide swath of the working population.


  • Promotions – When there are clear steps to promotion that are accessible to people at the start of their careers, women may advance more easily. Management and HR personnel can ensure that requirements for promotion are clearly explained to entry-level workers.
  • Retention – Employee retention also increases when employers provide a range of workplace flexibility options. Managers and HR personnel can encourage the use of both informal arrangements made on an individual basis, and formal policies that are widely implemented for both men and women.
  • Resume reviews – Women may be particularly discriminated against for having short job tenures when they apply to a new job opening. Hiring personnel may consider adopting “blind” resume reviews to mitigate bias that women and mothers experience when attempting to switch jobs.


Gender and the MBA: Differences in Career Trajectories, Institutional Support, and Outcomes


Sarah E. Patterson; Sarah Damaske; Christen Sheroff


The Pennsylvania State University


Gender & Society


April 2017


Research brief prepared by

Kim de Laat