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Hoping to Learn the Art of Balancing Work, Family

March 06, 2000|SUSAN CARPENTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Amid the power-suited, briefcase-carrying crowd that gathered at the National Graduate Women in Business Conference at UCLA's Anderson School over the weekend loomed serious concerns about the ability to manage the demands of jobs and families--twin goals for more than three out of four participants.

For 48% of these women, balancing work and family represented "the largest issue facing women today," according to an informal conference survey of about 150 of the more than 400 women from 50 schools who attended the meeting to network and discuss workplace issues.

Equal work for equal pay ranked a distant second, with 9% citing it as a concern. The glass ceiling placed third, with 3%.

"There's a lot of pressure now. You have to have this great career, but at the same time there's kind of this renewal of staying home with the kids. There's quite a tension there," said Neesha Hathi, 26, one of the conference organizers.

Many women agreed the glass ceiling still exists. It's just not in vogue to talk about it. "You're this ultrafeminist radical person" if you do, said Maryam Aflak, 26, who co-organized the conference. "There's a stigma attached to it."

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Chandy Olesen, 20, is a senior who will receive her undergraduate marketing degree from the University of Utah this spring. An intern with Mrs. Fields Corp., she intends to continue working when she starts studying for her master's degree in business administration course work this fall. "Of course there's the glass ceiling. You always have to worry about that, but that's getting a little old. Balancing family with work is the biggest thing. Balance has been the most difficult issue of my whole life. I think it always will be," said Olesen, who is married and hopes to have a family. Still, she believes, "you can have it all."

Olesen was typical of many of the women attending the conference: 90% said they planned to start a family. Of those, 78% said they would keep working.

While the survey revealed that this balance was the No. 1 concern, conference organizers limited to one the number of sessions dealing with the issue. "We wanted to focus on the positive. If you have the right skills and the right attitude, you're going to be able to make it regardless of the challenges," said Hathi, a former investment banker and second-year grad student who will receive her MBA from UCLA this spring.

Hathi and Aflak coordinated this year's conference as a way to network and build relationships--unions they see as keys to overcoming adversity and fostering success in the work arena. Their relationship is a perfect example of the friendships they hoped would form during the two-day event. Members of a group who attended last year's meeting at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., they barely knew each other but were so inspired they decided to collaborate on the project.

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Julie Swenson, 25, is a first-year student in the MBA program at University of Maryland. She hoped attendees would use the conference to discuss what she feels is another growing issue in the workplace today. "It's not woman versus man. It's respect," she said. "With minorities and people who are gay, you have the whole spectrum now. That's the new issue."

Swenson believes there will be more tolerance of diversity as more traditional companies are influenced by Internet start-ups. "There are more younger people with new ideas who are in power because of the dot-com companies, so they're able to infiltrate higher levels early on and change thought processes a little faster," she said.

A lot of those changes depend on the size and type of business. Kendall White, 26, works full-time as an engineer for a military contractor with 140,000 employees. "They're slower to move into the whole respect issue," said White, who attends the University of Maryland's graduate business program part-time.

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The majority of survey respondents, 69%, anticipated working for a company with more than 100 employees after receiving their MBAs. But many respondents, 59% of them, also anticipated starting their own businesses at some point in the future. Opinions were mixed on whether start-ups or corporations afforded women more flexibility in the workplace, and thus the opportunity for more balance.

"I have a friend here who's thinking about starting a family in a year or two, and she was leaning toward a big company because of the stability, the benefits program. She knows she can go on maternity leave and do all those things that you need to do if you want to continue a career and have a family. If you go to a start-up or start your own company, you're working all the time, you don't necessarily have the flexibility, and you're on call, so it's harder to manage that," said Hathi.

Susan Goodell, 28, a second-year student in UCLA's graduate business program, has worked as an investment banker for a large corporation. This summer she plans to join a small start-up, which, she feels, will offer her more flexibility when she has children. "You're allowed to balance more. That's more difficult in a corporate environment," she said. "The people there both have families and are home for dinner by 6."

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