Curious about how my classmates were managing this tricky business of work-life balance, I conducted a little homespun survey of the 226 women in my law-school class. More than 90 percent of them responded. The responses I got varied by employment status. The full-time lawyers typically e-mailed me back right away in 20 words or less. As in, "I'm a full-time lawyer, but I don't have any children. Good luck." My stay-at-home classmates took longer to respond and wrote longer e-mails. A condensed example: "I never imagined not having a career, and certainly never would have dreamed of 'sinking so low' as to be 'just a SAHM.' So my ego took a bit of a beating, but traps to happiness come in different disguises." The classmates with mommy-track jobs responded at around 50 words. What they described wasn't Friedan's feminist nightmare: "I work part-time mostly from home. But I wouldn't say I have a 'mommy track' job. I'd say I have an interesting, innovative, flexible work arrangement I've managed to negotiate based on my considerable client base."
According to my survey, the majority of the women of the class of 1993 of Harvard Law School have left the fast track. Thirty percent of the respondents have mommy track jobs, with 21 percent working part-time and 9 percent working full-time with special arrangements like job-sharing and working nonconventional hours. Another 30 percent of the respondents stay at home, most having "off-ramped" with the expectation of going back to work when their children are older.
The "mommy track" was renounced at birth for sanctioning boring flextime jobs with low plaster ceilings. But some of my not-fast-track classmates are using their clout and influence to create prestigious roles. A senior partner who brought many clients to her law firm, for example, now works 15 to 40 hours per week, mainly out of her home and on her own schedule, depending on her clients' needs and her children's schedules. The author of a best-selling book on negotiations launched her own conflict resolution firm with about 15 attorneys and consultants. She works from home during school hours and after bedtime and takes July and August off "so that I'm here all the time when the kids aren't in school."
At the moment, only a few, privileged women occupy such a space. Could a larger, broader set join them? If the answer is yes, it's because the mommy track isn't just for mommies anymore. Several of my classmates who chose flextime jobs for work-life balance do not have children. Eight others who work full-time have husbands who stay at home or work part-time. A 2005 Fortune study found that 84 percent of Fortune 500 male executives surveyed wanted flexible job options to give them more time for things outside of work. More recently, a group of companies found in a survey that overwhelming majorities of Generation Y and Baby Boomers – both men and women—view flexible work options and work-life balance as important and want to work remotely and take sabbaticals.
In other words, the line between the fast-track and the mommy-track is blurring. An example: 20 of my classmates working full-time (including 12 professors) said that although they have no special arrangements with their employers, they feel free to work from home or leave early to pick up their children. The language of the mommy track—flexibility, balance—is infiltrating more and more jobs and replacing traditional work values—long hours, face time—as the new workplace ideal.
Maybe herein lies the future. A Time cover story last year proclaimed "We're Getting Off the Ladder" and unveiled a new "corporate lattice" model with flexibility at its core. Maria Shriver's A Woman's Nation Report noted that Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Raytheon, and Intel are among the companies that are offering flex-time arrangements, not just to parents. A Business Week cover story reported on a program for all employees at Best Buy's headquarters to work wherever they want, whenever they want, as long as they get their work done, "like TiVo for your work." There are hard-nosed business reasons for such a move: Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu's flex program, for example, began as a measure for mothers but is being rolled out to all employees in May because of the benefits in employee loyalty and the savings ($41.5 million in 2003 alone).
To be sure, flexibility won't work in every field or job. But we've hardly maxed out on the ones in which it could. Many of us want to work less than 45 or 50 hours a week, on our own time, with our bosses trusting us to live up to expectations. The mommy track needn't be the dull fate feminists predicted—and, increasingly, it's not. Now all it needs is a new and better name. The sanity track, anyone?
Correction, April 1, 2010: This sentence originally stated that the NYT coined the phrase two months after Schwartz's article. An NYT article from August 1988 also uses the term. (Return to the corrected sentence.)