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A New Career Flap : What’s a Mommy Track and Why Are So Many Women Upset About It?

Times Staff Writer

Felice N. Schwartz, a veteran of the working womens’ battlefield, quietly published an essay, “Management Women and the New Facts of Life,” in the Harvard Business Review in the first week in January.

For two months, “I had a great many letters from men and women in the corporate community, really enormously positive,” she recalled. “They said this is a turning point . . . It’s going to open a whole new era.”

Then on March 8, her work received its first media attention in the New York Times. And suddenly Schwartz found herself off on a media fast track, her name synonymous with a new buzz word, Mommy Track, a term that she did not coin and which she dismisses as not “useful.”

Schwartz, who had detailed her concept of “career-primary women” and “career and family women,” found herself under sharp attack by women unhappy with how she saw their roles.

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As she defined it in her essay in Harvard’s influential corporate journal, “career-primary women” place work advancement above family concerns, while “career and family women"--the majority--are “willing to trade some career growth and compensation for freedom from the constant pressure to work long hours and weekends.”

What she advocated, Schwartz said, was “an intelligent informed forward movement” in the corporate view of women.

Two Career Paths

But other women didn’t see it that way, reacting in particular to a possible suggestion that Schwartz was advocating two career paths for women, the slower one for mothers suddenly dubbed the “Mommy Track.”

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Betty Friedan, the feminist leader and author of “The Feminine Mystique,” attacked Schwartz’s categories, calling them “dangerous” and a kind of “retrofeminism.”

“There are not two types of women,” Friedan said. “All women must have the real choices. . . . How they put it together, their priorities at different times, is a matter of individual choice.

“The so-called Mommy Track,” she said, “is really the Mommy Trap. It says to women that if they choose to have children, they pay a permanent price. It’s another word for sex discrimination.”

In Los Angeles, Judy Miller--a board member of the International Women’s Forum and a Braun & Co. marketing vice president who consults with many large corporations--expressed astonishment at Schwartz’s views.

“I can’t believe it,” said Miller, a widow. “If any company that eventually hired me over the past 20 years had taken her advice, I would not have been able to support my family (three children) when my husband became disabled.

“Where is her head?” she said of Schwartz. “The worst part is that she’s wrapped (her thesis) around all these wonderful lofty goals that everyone can agree with and then she has drawn it to these terrible conclusions that will eventually harm all women.

“She’s naively given new ammunition to those men who have traditionally blocked women. I resent and reject her conclusions as a working mother and a professional woman.”

Schwartz said she “was surprised” by the response to her work, which she feels has been misinterpreted as advocating a retreat for women’s rights.

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“Why would I want to turn back the clock?” asked Schwartz, 64, who has been married for 40-plus years.

The mother of three adult children--two sons and a daughter--and the grandmother of four, Schwartz noted that, “All three of the men (in my family) are deeply involved in the lives of their children and are sharing entirely parenting and home responsibilities with their wives.”

As for herself, she said, “I have worked full time, part time, not at all and full time,” summarizing a career that included eight years off with her children.

“I’m part of a generation that graduated from college right after World War II when the roles of men and women were quintessentially polarized,” and a woman’s job was to “produce babies,” she said. It wasn’t until later that “we were urged to go out and produce refrigerators.”

Schwartz acknowledged that her career, which included three years in manufacturing, was not in corporate management. But, for 27 years “I’ve been talking with people in the corporate world” as founder-president of Catalyst, a not-for-profit research and advisory organization.

‘To Expand Options’

Catalyst was begun in 1962, she says, “to expand career options” for women. It more recently has addressed family options for career women--things that enable women and men “to do what they want to do with their lives.”

If feminists are taking exception to her ideas about working women, well, Schwartz thinks that’s healthy.

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“I’m not dividing women into two groups” but rather just noting “the two problems that companies have to deal with,” she said.

“I’m very happy to have all this (attention),” she said, adding, “I think it extends the life of the discussion. If this is triggering some really negative feeling in women, then we’ve got to get it out and talk about it.”

But, she added, “the amount of distortion is discouraging.”

She emphasized that she wrote her article “for the corporate audience . . . not for women. One of the big problems for women is (executives’) saying, ‘I pigeonholed them into two areas and one was a cul-de-sac.’ Well, I wasn’t doing that.”

What she was doing, she said, was “trying to focus corporate attention on the two responses that would enable (corporations) to respond to women wherever they are” on the career-family spectrum.

“I wanted to say, ‘Look, (these are the) things you’ve got to learn to do to remove counterproductive attitudes and behaviors that prevail still in the corporation and facilitate the productivity of women,” not impede it. “They don’t want to impede (women). They need women.”

‘A Critical Resource’

Today, “the realities are entirely different” than during the baby boom “when women could be perceived as surplus . . . companies are not looking at how to hold women down,” she contended. “What I wanted to say was, ‘OK, you are beginning to recognize that women are a critical resource and it’s going to be important in your achieving and maintaining a competitive edge to capture and retain (their) talents and ability.’ ”

To do this, corporations must make the work place more responsive to women and “more responsive to the family needs of women,” Schwartz said, adding, “I don’t believe in the Mommy Track or the Daddy Track.”

But by distinguishing between career-primary and career-and-family women, wasn’t she reinforcing the idea that parenting is womens’ work?

“No, of course not,” she replied. “This is saying women are still bearing the primary responsibility for childbearing and it’s nonsense not to say that.” This, she says, means women need “flexibility” in work hours and schedules so “they don’t have to renounce their careers.”

Still, couldn’t the idea of dual career tracks be used to keep all women in their corporate place? “Yep, it could,” she said. “You can never, never make progress if you want to play it safe . . . You can use anything against anybody.”

Schwartz insisted she is not talking about “two tracks” and doesn’t understand how this notion took flight. By using labels she was “just trying to establish a framework in the corporate mentality” and to “remove the barriers to women’s productivity in management,” she said.

Efforts Questioned

But women like Miller question the validity of her effort, saying for example that Schwartz has done inadequate research and “offers unsupported evidence.”

Schwartz, for example, has been criticized for failing to name names when making statements such as “the cost of employing women in management is greater than the cost of employing men.”

“Where are the studies that say women cost corporations more than men?” Miller asked. “What I’ve seen are government studies saying that women make 63 cents to every dollar a man makes.”

Miller also questions Schwartz’s citation of an unidentified multinational corporation’s new study, showing that the management turnover rate “is 2 1/2 times higher among top-performing women than it is among men.” Miller notes that Schwartz assumes that turnover is caused by maternity, whereas Miller noted that statistics show many women leave corporations to start their own businesses.

Schwartz states that “a large producer of consumer goods” reports that half of women who take maternity leave “return to their jobs late or not at all.”

Schwartz said she will not identify the corporations whose work she cited because “that’s proprietary. This was not a research paper,” she added. “This was an essay” that she was asked to write for the review “based on my expertise as a researcher of 27 years working in this area . . . those were just anecdotal references to spark interest.”

She said that corporations must consider workers’ lives because current parental leave policies now are “making it difficult for women to survive. I don’t believe you can have a child and return to full-time vigorous employment eight weeks afterward.”

Though long, paid parental leaves are not “in the foreseeable future,” Schwartz sees some advances benefiting women who want both families and careers: a major accounting firm lets women go half-time for three years, then “rejoin the partner line”; a large New York law firm has extended the time for making partner from 5 1/2 to 11 years, specifically so women who want time out “can jump back in.”

Schwartz noted that the average age of the first birth among women college graduates is now 31. “We’ve invested a lot of money in these women” in nine years on the job. “Let’s hold on to them.”

She argued that “the most significant and cost-effective thing companies could do to release the productivity of women” would be to make it easier for men to have a greater role in parenting and family life, receiving, for example, two months off at the birth of a child.

‘A Reality of Tomorrow’

But job flexibility “is not a reality of today” for men, she said. “It is a reality of tomorrow.”

Phyllis Rothman, a licensed clinical social worker who coordinates the Thalians’ Babies and Briefcases project at Cedars-Sinai Early Childhood Center in Los Angeles, has not reviewed Schwartz’s work in detail.

But she said she has been confused by “fury” surrounding it, because she believes that for “women who want it, the two tracks are a wonderful idea. It’s a way to stay in the field and then enter the career track at a later time . . . It gives women an option.

“Men,” Rothman said, “have always had the option to work less or more. There have always been committed family men who do not become CEOs, who work for lower-keyed law firms . . . My presumption is, with what (Schwartz) studied, I think she’s accurate. I think she’s talking about what is.”

And for women who want children and careers, Rothman sees a tough reality: “We’re talking about a 60- to 80-hour on-the-job work week here. They do it by giving up a great deal of control over raising their children. They don’t give up all of it. They can administer, be loving, have lots of coverage and help, and be very available to their children but with smaller amounts of time.”

As the ‘80s come to a close, “women in the corporation are about to move from a buyer’s to a seller’s market,” Schwartz said, noting that 80% of new entrants in the work force over the next decade will be women, minorities and immigrants.

She could not offer an educated guess as to what percentage of management women never return to the job after childbirth. “Nobody knows,” she says. “There isn’t a company in the country that’s looked at it. There has never been a study of the status of women in corporate management.” Catalyst is now doing a two-year study that she says will be a “benchmark.”

Other Reasons

She acknowledges too that women leave management for reasons other than to have children. They may, for example, experience a clash between “female socialization” and “the male corporate culture.”

But might her outlined dual-corporate policy for women simply encourage the best and the brightest not to have children? No, Schwartz said.

“It’s got nothing to do with whether they’re mothers,” she said. “It’s got to do with their own priorities. . . . It won’t be either-or as companies become more and more flexible and enable women to be active participants in family life for periods . . . and still return to a very strong career commitment” that takes them to the corporate peak.

This is her message--and it has nothing to do with tracks, she said.

In an ideal world, she noted, women would not have to make career-family choices. But in the real world, “I’m saying neither men nor women can have everything. There are trade-offs. . . .”

Staff Writer Kathleen Hendrix contributed to this story.


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