The "mommy track" turns 21.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
March 31 2010 10:02 AM

The Mommy Track Turns 21

Why it no longer deserves a bad rap from feminists.

Is the "mommy track" unfairly criticized?
Is the "mommy track" unfairly criticized?

The "mommy track" turned 21 this month. Should we celebrate or rue its coming of age?

The term stems from "Management Women and the New Facts of Life," an article byFelice N. Schwartz in the January-February 1989 issue of Harvard Business Review. She warned that companies were losing many talented women due to their inflexible working conditions. Her solution: Divide employees into two groups, one in which career is paramount and the other in which it's the balancing of career andfamily that's most important. The first group gets the fast track, the second gets part-time and flexible schedules, shared jobs, telecommuting, and even the possibility of leaving work altogether and returning years later. Schwartz didn't actually use the words "mommy track," but several months earlier, and then after her article ran, the New York Times used the phrase to describe her idea. *And then the feminists pounced. Betty Friedan attacked Schwartz's ideas as a "dangerous" kind of "retrofeminism." "The so-called Mommy Track is really the Mommy Trap," she declared. Ellen Goodman worried that Schwartz had created a "mommy trough," a type of "ghettoized second-class job" for women.

I was 19 when Schwartz's article was published, and I didn't bother to read it. I was busy finishing college and preparing to enter Harvard Law School, where my female classmates and I would join forces and march off together to become judges, public policy leaders, and partners in high-powered law firms. We would not be on any mommy track.

For the next decade, I stuck with this plan: I was a Law Review editor, federal appellate clerk, and a litigation associate at the Washington, D.C., firm Williams & Connolly. I shifted to the corporate ladder and continued the climb with a stint at McKinsey & Co. and then as co-founder and president of a dot-com-turned-software company with more than 200 employees.

At 32, I had a baby. The same month, in the midst of the high-tech implosion, a bigger company bought mine. It seemed a perfect time for a short sabbatical. Inertia took over, one month turned to one year, and I became pregnant again—hardly the right time to go back to work.

My 10-year law school reunion fell when I was six months into my second pregnancy. I found myself rehearsing in front of a mirror a witty remark about being CEO of my household. I expected a bad-sit-com scene with the other women in my class as legal superstars and me as the lone stay-at-home mom. "They're all going to be saying I just made partner, I just got tenure," I lamented to my husband. But they didn't.At the end of the reunion evening, my classmates and I compared notes and discovered that only one woman (of the 30 or so in attendance) was still a full-time practicing attorney. "Is our whole class on the mommy track?" I wondered, a little relieved.

When I told my mom about the reunion, she had a different question: "I guess we're not the only ones who wasted a hundred thousand dollars in tuition, then?" Although her comment was punctuated by a good-natured chuckle, I couldn't laugh it off. She and my dad had moved to Baltimore from Korea, working 16-hour days in a tiny, vaultlike grocery store protected by bullet-proof glass, skimping and saving for my tuition. Had I squandered my parents' years of sacrifice?

My guilt was perfectly timed for the furor caused by Lisa Belkin's article, "The Opt-Out Revolution," published several months after my reunion in October 2003 in the New York Times Magazine.Belkin, in case you've forgotten, described eight "elite, successful women" living in Atlanta—all Princeton graduates, some with MBAs and J.D.s, who decided they'd rather take care of their children than stay in their demanding jobs. She asked: "Why don't women run the world? Maybe it's because they don't want to." The backlash was intense. Writer and researcher E.J. Graff called the opt-out story a "myth" that failed to acknowledge that women are being "pushed out" by inflexible working conditions. Heather Bushey, an economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research, "debunk[ed this] myth" with data showing that "women are not increasingly dropping out of the labor force because of their kids" but because of the "lackluster labor market."

I didn't want to be an anti-feminist opt-out revolutionary; I wanted to follow Linda Hirshman's advice to "GET TO WORK." As soon as my second baby turned 1, I started planning to launch a new business. A few months from the start date, one of my children became ill with a constellation of symptoms that no one knew exactly how to treat. I abandoned my plans and spent the next five years on what I called the "doctor mom track," spending my days doing medical research, trying new treatments and appealing rejected insurance claims.

Last year, my child was pronounced completely healthy. We had another baby. Savoring the normalness, I embraced the title of "just a mom to three boys." I still wanted to go back to work, but this time, I was ready to seek out the classic flextime "mommy track" job I had once scoffed at.

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.)

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