When Marcia Ellis joined male-dominated Sikorsky Aircraft in 1978, she quickly learned to cuss and act like one of the guys--but do whatever male management expected of her.
Those days are gone. She recently persuaded reluctant executives at the aerospace manufacturer to allow a "Take Your Children to Work Day." On the day, almost every one of those who had opposed the idea came up to congratulate her.
Like Ellis, more women are acting with new confidence in the working world. Leaving behind the notion that they have to act like men to get ahead, they're beginning to operate in their own decidedly female ways.
At the same time, women are rejecting the role of the mythical superwoman, who runs ragged shouldering the burdens of home and work. Sometimes, that means quitting a top post, as PepsiCo executive Brenda Barnes did last month. But more and more, women don't drop out. They start their own businesses or, as Barnes hinted she would do, find jobs that better accommodate their many roles.
"You can be yourself and still make your mark--and probably more so because you can be who you are," says Ellis, manager of work-life programs at Stratford, Conn.-based Sikorsky, where women make up just 18% of the work force.
Still, while women have made vast gains in recent decades, "it is not a level playing field," says Elizabeth Perle McKenna, who wrote "When Work Doesn't Work Anymore" following her abrupt resignation as a high-ranking publishing executive.
During a 20-year climb up the corporate ladder, McKenna's desire for financial independence slowly turned into a thirst for materialistic wants. She failed to speak up about work-home conflicts, fearing that she'd be seen as a slacker. To fit in, she left behind much of her identity.
Perhaps those experiences aren't so different from those of many men, who also suffer from mid-life crises, downsizings and a system that too often still values face-time and blind devotion.
Yet McKenna points out what many women are realizing: Too often, work is an ill fit for them. They are expected to both work like a man and live up to society's ideal image of a woman--the caregiver, whether of elders or children; the supporter, whether of boyfriends or husbands; the good housekeeper.
Slowly, that's changing. "Ten years ago, the discussion was 'How do I do everything?' " says Marcia Brumit Kropf, vice president for research at Catalyst, a nonprofit group that studies women in business. "Now the discussion is 'How do I figure out what it is I want to do?' "
At a bustling New York pizzeria one fall day, a group of women are discussing just that. They're taking a break from Lifedesigns, a two-day seminar run by a former Avon executive to help working women make life choices. The morning was filled with expressions of frustration at a male-dominated business world. At lunch, the talk turns to themselves.
"The men come to work in their pressed pants, without a concern," says Donna H., explaining that she just quit her job as an investment banker to start a business and focus more on her personal life.
Victoria Cull, a single mother of a 6-year-old, agrees it's impossible to give 100% to both worlds. "The reality is that women are trying to do both, but they're making some realistic decisions about how much they can do," she says.
Instead of blaming themselves when they come up short, women are starting to demand that both work and home must bend more to their needs, not just vice versa. Some companies are listening.
Five years ago at accounting firm Deloitte & Touche, 25% of women just below the rank of partner were leaving annually, compared with 16% of men.
Stunned, Deloitte & Touche launched changes that have resulted in doubling the number of female partners to 10%, the best scorecard of the Big Six accounting firms. It wasn't just the right thing to do: A 1% improvement in retention levels for managers is worth $5.5 million to the firm.
Today, with a virtual change in culture, women are not only staying, they're becoming partner while on part-time schedules.
"I do feel--and I've not always felt this way--more of a sense of freedom within the past four years to do things 'my way' within guidelines," says Jannie Herchuk, a partner who works 40 hours weekly, or 80% of the usual partner load.
A boost in high-ranking women in corporations has an added bonus: more role models. "It helps to create a sense of security, and possibility," says Rani Scott, a financial controller at Citibank. "I think I've become more comfortable, acting true to myself."
In other cases, women leave the confines of corporations, but usually not to don aprons. Deloitte's retention study found 90% of the women who'd left the company still worked outside the home. Such departures have helped fuel an 80% growth in female-owned businesses, to nearly 8 million, or 40% of the country's total businesses, in the past decade.
High-fliers such as Brenda Barnes, former president and chief executive of Pepsi-Cola North America, are most likely to be portrayed as dropouts, despite their intention to keep working but in a more balanced way.
Yet no matter how many women stay on fast tracks while working flexible hours or leave to create their own businesses, most can't succeed without one more revolution.
"Part of the challenge is changing the expectation that the mothers will do it all at home," says Joan Peters, author of "When Mothers Work."
The answer isn't to stop work, argues Peters. Nearly 65% of working women provide half or more of household income, according to the AFL-CIO. Instead, Peters urges women to ask for help from the men in their lives.
Already, that's happening. In 1960, for every hour a father spent on housework and child care, the mother put in four. By the early 1990s, for every hour he put in, she spent 1 1/2 hours, says University of Illinois psychologist Joseph Pleck.