VIEWPOINTS : Women at Work: A New Debate Is Born : The ‘Mommy Track’ Has Authorities Arguing About Women’s Roles at Work

A recent Harvard Business Review article suggested that there are two basic types of women managers--those who put career first and those who need a flexible schedule to take care of their children. The article, written by Felice N. Schwartz, stirred controversy by recommending that companies should accommodate women with these differing goals by establishing separate “career-primary” and “career-and-family” tracks for women. But would such a system really help women meet their career and personal goals? Or would it pigeonhole women and institutionalize unequal treatment on the job? Free-lance writer Meredith Chen raised these questions with a variety of authorities, and excerpts from her interviews follow:

Felice N. Schwartz, founder and president of the researcher organization Catalyst:

“The article I wrote for the Harvard Business Review is an essay that is my commentary as an informed, concerned person who has headed a research organization for over 27 years. We have probably done more research at Catalyst than any other group or research organization on the subject of women. . . .

“The vast majority of women need to work out of economic necessity. I think also that a vast majority of women would like to have the opportunity to participate more actively in the lives of their children than they can within the present structure. I think that because of the new demographic realities and because women are so prepared to make a contribution to corporate management, companies now are going to enable women to have the flexibility that they need.


“I predict companies will enable women to work on whatever schedule works for them and to come back part-time. . . . The thing that I think is great about that is that women will be able to be fully productive during those hours that they do work and they will be able to take the time for parenting that they want to take. Even poor women will be able to afford to cut back somewhat and have prorated pay and not be deprived of the opportunity to be with their children.

“I think that corporations aren’t ready yet to respond to men. I think what they condone for women they condemn, or at least look at as a lack of commitment, from men. But . . . there is no question in my mind that the single most significant, cost-effective thing that companies can do to release the productivity of women is to legitimize and facilitate the role that men want increasingly to take in family life. I think that what they do in response to women, vis-a-vis flexibility, will be a model for what they do with men.”

Jerome M. Rosow, president of the Work in America Institute research group:

“The criticism of Felice Schwartz’s piece is a little bit of an over-reaction. I think to some extent, she was defining the reality of what’s happening. What we see here is the leading edge of a trend of women with professional careers who are becoming a predominant part of the American labor force, trying to adjust the conflicts between work and family. Part of what we see in her definition of the two-track phenomenon is an expression of the fact that women need wider choices than men in their professional careers because they are not relieved of the child-rearing responsibilities.


“It is not a question of being derailed from a career, but rather going on a slower pace. What we are seeing is an elaboration of choice.

“The article demonstrates the tremendous impact of the feminization of American workers. Large employers have been slow to adapt to the changing fact of women in the workplace.

“I don’t see the mommy track as a permanent track. I see it as a temporary sidetrack for a large number of women who are highly motivated. Women who are not allowed by the corporation to get back on track will be apt to leave and go elsewhere where they are not treated like second-class citizens. The point is that if you are going to get this track, it has to be by choice and administered with equity.”

Ann Morrison, co-author of “Breaking the Glass Ceiling” and director of the Center for Creative Leadership:

“I think what Felice has done is to assume some givens. Instead of trying to change the way some things are done, she has accepted that and proposed some solutions that fall into existing givens. Those givens are not entirely acceptable, and I think that is where the flak has come from. People are saying that women shouldn’t have to be solely responsible for parenting. The bulk of her article assumes that women are going to continue to assume the responsibility for child-rearing as well as child-bearing. A way to help women out is to share the responsibility more fairly between two parents so that there doesn’t have to be a mommy track.

Richard Lewis, chairman of Corporate Annual Reports:

“I think that what Felice Schwartz was really saying was that you should identify the fast-track people, the fast-track women who, in fact, don’t want to drop out and have children, and make sure that you don’t have any false barriers in their way. There is almost an assumption in business that these bright women are going to drop out after 10 years and have children. If you have some who are identified as not going to drop out, you can give them more responsibility and training and keep them going up. It is a positive if you can identify those few that will go straight up.

“I think it is a landmark subject, and it has not been talked about publicly before. I think the reason is that on the one hand the feminist point of view had been that women and men essentially are equal and there should be no discussion of differentiation. In big business, there is a great concern over being labeled anti-feminist. Men just don’t want to do that, they’d rather just duck the issue. Consequently, it really took a prominent woman with impeccable credentials to bring the subject to the table.


“There may be men who want to go on a daddy track, but there is a real world to consider here. Men accept the idea that a woman might take time off to take care of a baby. At the same time, they would not understand why another man would take time off, and men know that. They know that it would be out of step and that is just the cultural bias. That is just the reality. It may be a good idea, but I don’t think at this point in time many men would do it.”

U.S. Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.):

“When you have something in a journal as prestigious as the Harvard Business Review citing two studies that they won’t name or tell the methodology--but that says that women that have families cost (businesses) more than men and therefore it is OK to have a second track--I think we should jump on them.

“The new government statistics say that young girls in school are five times more likely to be the sole support of their families as young boys. What happens is that women know that and they are terribly conscientious about their jobs, be they military or anything else. The way I read Schwartz’s article is that she is saying that we professional women are just tired of being held back by you ladies who insist on having children. . . .

“The amazing thing to me is that (Schwartz) is getting back to the thing I thought we buried years ago and that is you can’t have a family and a career. She is polarizing women and everybody loves it.

“It is very confusing and the most surprising thing is that Harvard would print something like this.”

Kirk O. Hanson, a corporate ethics consultant who teaches a business ethics course at Stanford University that considers the trade-offs between work and family:

“Many companies are structured in a way that makes it difficult for women to be on the fast track. The clearest indicator of that is the marital status of top-level executives. Some 95% of top-level male executives are married. Only 50% of top-level women executives are married.


“The dual track makes me uncomfortable if it is available only to women. In fairness, it needs to be available to both men and women. One reason that it should be available to men is so that it doesn’t stigmatize women, and so that it serves as encouragement for men to take on more of the child-rearing responsibilities. It is inevitable that it will be primarily a vehicle for women to manage the conflicting pressures of family life and work.

“In many companies a peculiar brand of macho has taken over where an unnecessary standard of work is the norm. Many women who object to the mommy track want to be more macho than the macho males who have run business over the last hundred years.

“I teach a lot of MBAs who exhibit a peculiar brand of macho that leads them to believe they can do it all, have a happy family life, work 70 hours a week and achieve unlimited corporate success. There are trade-offs, and this is a fundamental ethical decision that every business person makes whether male or female.

“Current evidence is that women are voting with their feet when it comes to making work and family trade-offs. Even among our most professionally oriented women, there is strong evidence that they chose to modify their working hours in order to put family priorities ahead at certain times in their careers. Few of them see and have the opportunity to reintegrate onto the fast track, and their talents, at the peak period of their careers, are lost to the companies that might have taken advantage of them.

R. Gordon McGovern, chief executive of Campbell Soup Co.

“You have to try to relieve some of the tension and pressures that keep you from getting at some of the talent that is in the female and male work force. There are specific cases where people have come here because we had a child-care center or have stayed because we had it.

“I think that job sharing is something we have to get accustomed to. There is not resistance to it philosophically. It is the problem of putting the time and energy into organizing it to make it work.

“I agree with Felice Schwartz that maternity should not be the thing that cuts women off from getting to the top. . . . In the United States, 45% of our company’s total work force is women, and 23% of our management positions are women. . . . I don’t think it is enough.”