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Create Work Policies Fit for a Mom

April 16, 2002|DIANE HALPERN | Diane Halpern is a professor of psychology and director of the Berger Institute for Work, Family and Children at Claremont McKenna College.

Can women have it all? The answer depends on the definition of "all."

In her headline-grabbing book, "Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children," economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett delivers some bad news: Nearly half of professional women are childless at 40. She tells sad stories about chief executives, politicians and lawyers who yearn to be mothers but somehow "forgot" to have children as they climbed the ladders promising success. These tearful stories lead to the conclusion that women who work hard establishing careers during the first half of their lives will be repaid only with childlessness and regrets in the second half.

But Hewlett overlooks the more than half of the women in high-powered careers who have had children, as well as those who have decided not to. And although we tend to think that high-level professionals have unique work- related stresses, low-wage earners are no less stressed when it comes to making ends meet. They often work overtime or take on second jobs, endure long commutes on public transportation and may not have the "luxury" of paying for health insurance or the household help that's affordable to higher-paid professionals.

Approximately 70% of mothers with school-age children work for pay outside the home, with experiences that fly in the face of the conclusion that it is almost impossible to combine motherhood and work. Difficult? Definitely. Tiring? Absolutely. But it is the reality for most women.

The bottom line is that biology is an equal-opportunity science. For all women, biological clocks run in the same time zone as tenure and other career path clocks. Timeouts for maternity leaves or child-care duties are needed during the early years of most women's careers, and women pay dearly. But the reduction in lifetime earnings for mothers who disrupt their careers for family is reimbursed with a life with the precious child. Not a bad deal.

So must we leave it at that? Not necessarily. Young men and women need help with life planning. They need to understand how sharply women's fertility rates fall after age 35. They need to know that delayed childbearing is unhealthy for mothers and their children and that the decision to postpone a family may ultimately be the decision to not have a family.

The current worker norm is based on a model family that is nearly extinct: a dedicated company man with a stay-at-home wife to care for the children or elderly parents while tending to endless appointments with cable installers, termite inspectors and other service workers. The new worker norms should allow more options for flexible work schedules, telecommuting, child-care assistance, quality part-time careers, job sharing.

It is simply good business to provide work options that reduce absenteeism and tardiness, increase worker commitment and reduce employee turnover rates, not to mention reducing the costs to hire and train new personnel.

We should investigate ways to reduce backlash against family-friendly work policies so that employers and nonparent employees understand the strong business case that is supported by these policies. We also need to end the tendency to attribute to working mothers all the ailments of society. Fathers, schools, culture and children themselves also contribute to everyday problems.

Fathers and nonparents as well would benefit from a broader range of family-friendly policies, which would allow them to meet their responsibilities and pursue their own interests. We can redesign how we work so that more women and men can create full lives, which include careers and kids.

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