Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Progress on Gender Equality: The Mommy Track Gets an Upgrade

Yesterday's Los Angeles Times ran one of the most encouraging articles on women's progress in the workplace that I've seen in long time. A developing trend in corporate America is the increasing flexibility of employers in allowing their female employees career options that accomodate the need for family time and care-giving:

Welcome to Mommy Track 2.0.

The old Mommy Track was a path where up-and-coming women found that having children effectively disqualified them for top positions. They either took themselves out of the running, settling for lower-level positions with more predictable hours and less responsibility, or their male bosses assumed that because these women had children, they wouldn't or couldn't give their all to the office.

Now, some employers in high-pressure professions such as law, medicine, accounting and finance — that years ago may have fired women who became pregnant — are finally giving working mothers what they've wanted for years: a shot at the top jobs but with flexible hours, part-time schedules or other concessions to their care-giving responsibilities.

They are increasingly willing to change the criteria for young mothers to reach top positions, giving them more time or the ability to leave for several years of child-raising and come back . Breast-feeding lounges, support groups, mentors and sabbaticals have become more commonplace as services for working mothers seeking to break the glass ceiling.

Years ago, the attitude of male executives was, "OK, let them compete in exactly the same way that men do," said Myra Strober, a Stanford University labor economist. "What's really changed is the appreciation that some sort of accommodation is required."

"So what if it takes 15 years to get 10 publications instead of seven years?" said Janet Bickel, a Virginia-based executive career consultant, arguing for more flexibility in tenure or partnership tracks for younger working mothers.

Although many of these employer efforts — and the working mothers trying them out — are too new or young to show measurable results yet, the problem is clear. Women comprise nearly half of all law and medical graduates and a growing chunk of those earning business and engineering degrees, yet their share of top managerial and partnership positions, although growing, is much smaller.

Read the whole article, which includes data showing that while the number of women in top corporate jobs is increasing, the overall rate of women's participation in the workforce has been declining. In relation to that decline, the New York Times ran a very popular (and controversial) article last year on a survey that found a majority of elite women at Yale University saying they planned to work for just a brief time upon graduation, before settlling into the domestic life of wife and mother. The Yale study cited in that article was suspect, although the pendulum may have swung back in favor of traditional lifestyles for many women of affluence.

Gender equality in the workplace is a topic that I cover in some detail in my American politics courses. Progress on women's rights over history has been one of the country's great achievements in its democratization. There are still areas of stagnation -- for example, few women are top U.S. governmental policymakers -- though the impediments to gender advancement in business and politics continue to fall.

Still, some scholars --
such as Sylvia Ann Hewlett, in her book, Creating a Life -- argue that there's a cruel trade-off for working women who want a family, as evidenced by the large proportion of high-achieving corporate women who forego having kids.

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