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This Mommy Track May Go Somewhere

Some companies offer a chance to advance on a schedule that allows more time at home.

September 05, 2006|Molly Selvin | Times Staff Writer

Attorney Becky Belke works at a Los Angeles law firm where colleagues regularly toil nights and weekends. But as a mother of three children under the age of 5, she wants to work only three days a week -- even if it means she can't become a partner soon.

No problem.

Not only has Belke's firm, Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, agreed to her part-time schedule, it will put her on its partnership track if she wants to boost her hours when her kids are older.

"I know if I were home with my kids every day I'd be insane, and if I were here every day I would not be happy," the 39-year old said of her part-time schedule. "It's a good situation for me."

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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 07, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Mommy track: An article in Tuesday's Section A about efforts to promote female professionals said attorney Sandra Kanengiser joined law firm Irell & Manella in 1983 and took 11 years to become a partner. Kanengiser joined the firm in 1984 and became a partner 10 years later.

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.

The work-family squeeze eventually prompts a third of women professionals to leave their jobs for a couple of years or forever, said Sylvia Ann Hewlett, president of the New York-based Center for Work-Life Policy.

By showing that leaving a successful career to care for children did not prevent her from returning to a top job in corporate America, Brenda Barnes can be seen as a Mommy Track 2.0 pioneer.

Among the first mothers to reach the executive suite a decade ago when PepsiCo Inc. tapped her to lead its Pepsi-Cola North America division, Barnes' decision in 1997 to step down to spend more time with her three school-age children generated headlines and considerable angst in the business community.

"I'm not leaving because they need more of me," she said of her children at the time, "but because I need more of them."

Like many senior women executives, Barnes depended on full-time child care and little sleep to make the PepsiCo job work. She said then that she routinely rose at 3:30 a.m. to work a few hours before the nanny arrived. Breakfast with her children was a priority and she tried to leave the office by 7 p.m. to be with them in the evening.

But for many mothers like lawyer Belke, that full-throttle pace leaves them too little time to enjoy their children. Ultimately Barnes came to feel the same way -- at least for a while.

After a year off, Barnes -- who declined to be interviewed for this story -- returned to the executive suite, this time as interim president of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. In July 2004, her children by then teenagers, she was named president of food company Sara Lee Corp. and now is its chief executive.

But she and other female CEOs -- such as Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo, EBay Inc.'s Meg Whitman or Patricia A. Woertz of Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. -- are still a rarity. Only 11 Fortune 500 companies have a female CEO, and as of last year more than half had fewer than three women corporate officers, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit research group based in New York.

The total number of female corporate officers at Fortune 500 companies grew by only 0.7 percentage point, to 16.4%, in the last three years, Catalyst said.

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