Having It All

09.27.134:45 AM ET

When Mommy Track Leads To Dead End

In her new book "Wonder Woman," Barnard president Debora Spar asks why so many women struggle to opt back in after taking time off for motherhood.

In 1989, Felice Schwartz wrote a wildly popular (or at least wildly well read) article in the Harvard Business Review. Entitled “Management Women and the New Facts of Life,” the article argued that if corporations wanted to retain their best and brightest female employees, they needed to create a more flexible and family-friendly workforce, one that offered young mothers a variety of ways to structure their working hours and their careers. High-potential women, Schwartz suggested, fell naturally into one of two camps. In the first were “career primary women,” women who essentially behaved like men at work and were willing to undertake the same set of trade-offs. These women were almost certain to remain single or at least childless, Schwartz predicted, and to demand only that their employers “recognize them early, accept them, and clear artificial barriers from their path to the top.” In the second camp were “career-and-family women,” women who wanted children and a career, and who, unlike both men and “career primary women,” were willing to trade some of the demands of promotion for the freedom to spend more time with their children.

Schwartz, a devoted feminist who had founded the women’s advocacy group Catalyst, never actually used the term “mommy track.” But as her piece went viral (and this in the days before social media!), others rapidly coined the phrase and attached it to her argument. The mommy track, in common parlance, became the less arduous path women took when they wanted to stay in the workforce but not sacrifice their entire lives to it. The mommy track was what allowed employers to retain the women they had recruited, trained, and invested in. And the mommy track turned out to be a great dead end.

In theory, keeping mothers in the workforce demands little more than flexibility; a certain willingness, as Schwartz initially suggested, to give career-and-family women “the freedom to take time off — a couple of hours, a day, a week— or to do some work at home and some at the office.” In theory, talented women on a mommy track could telecommute or job-share; they could work twenty (or thirty-five) efficient hours every week, staying current and valuable in the workplace without necessarily devoting every ounce of their being to its demands. In theory, the mommy track should work, both for women and their employers.

In practice, however, few organizations have found ways to carve their most important positions into anything other than full-time chunks. Today, for example, more than twenty years after Schwartz published her article, there are still only eight scientists working part time at the National Science Foundation (NSF). Only 13 percent of women lawyers work part time, as do 2 percent of female financial managers. When prodded, representatives from these organizations say all the right things. Remarking upon the intensity and importance of his agency’s work, for example, the senior human resource specialist at the NSF explained that “you can imagine that the task of determining which projects are funded, distributing the awards, and monitoring and reviewing compliance . . . is daunting to say the least. Because of that, most of our employees are full- time professionals.” But at the end of the (full eight-hour!) day, the facts speak for themselves.

At HSBC, a major global bank, 8.3 percent of all employees work part time; at one of their leading competitors, the number is a rather stunning 1.1 percent. Even at Barnard College, a place run largely by and for women, only 11 percent of the college’s staff members were working less than full time in 2011. Again, it doesn’t seem that the human resource departments of any of these organizations are consciously choosing against part-time positions. On the contrary, most HR managers (who tend to be disproportionately female) explicitly embrace the idea of part-time work and flexible employment. But when it comes to putting actual bodies in actual jobs, full-timers simply tend to dominate. As a result, while the number of women who work part time is statistically quite high (roughly a quarter of all female workers), the vast majority of these part-timers are clustered at the lower end of the economic spectrum, working as cashiers, waitresses, and sales assistants.

Many women who have left the full- time workforce, of course, predict that their hiatuses will be brief. Most women, in fact, and particularly high-earning, high-achieving women, presume that they will leave their jobs for just brief periods of time, returning in full force once their maternity leaves expire, or their children set off for preschool, or their husbands return from that overseas assignment. Yet, as Sylvia Ann Hewlett found in a 2005 study, most women who pull blithely into a career “off-ramp” find the road back far more treacherous than they had anticipated. Positions disappear; salaries plummet; professional relationships grow stale. And at the end of the day, only 40  percent of women who try to return to full-time professional jobs actually manage to do so. The rest settle into early retirement, or slower paced, lower-ranked jobs.

Exploring these on-and-off patterns has become a cottage industry of sorts—and a nasty one, at that. In 2003, Lisa Belkin wrote a piece for The New York Times Magazine that sketched the lives of eight formerly fierce women. All had undergraduate degrees from Prince ton. All had equally impressive graduate degrees (in law, English, business); all had charged eagerly into their chosen profession. And all, after marriage and a couple of kids, had, as Belkin dubbed it, “opted out.” Instead of racing to the office in the morning, they were watching their toddlers and drinking lattes at Starbucks; instead of staying on the fast track, or even the mommy track, they were hitting the treadmill at the gym. None of these women had been pushed from their professional perches. They had simply opted out, choosing a life— of children, motherhood, wifedom— they found more appealing. “I don’t want to be famous; I don’t want to conquer the world; I don’t want that kind of a life,” asserted Sarah McArthur Amsbary, a former theater artist with a master’s degree in English. “I don’t want to be on the fast track leading to a partnership at a prestigious law firm,” echoed Katherine Brokaw, a former lawyer. “Some people define that as success. I don’t.” Dipping into her own story— as a hard-charging reporter who had eventually decided to freelance instead— Belkin raised the same concerns, the same choices, as those of her subjects. “I was no longer willing to work as hard,” she recalls, “for a prize I was learning I didn’t really want.”

Two years later, another reporter at the Times wrote a similar piece, focusing now on even younger women, women who were deciding to opt out before they had even begun. In the article, reporter Louise Story told the tale of Cynthia Liu, a smart, disciplined, and talented sophomore at Yale, who, at 19, was already planning to devote at least a chunk of her life to being a stay-at-home mom. “My mother’s always told me that you can’t be the best career woman and the best mother at the same time,” Ms. Liu confided. “You always have to choose one over the other.” And Liu apparently was not alone; according to Story, 60 percent of the women she polled at Yale reported that they, too, planned to cut back or stop working entirely once they had children. “I’ll have a career until I have two kids,” predicted Angie Ku, another Yale student covered in the story. “It doesn’t necessarily matter how far you get,” she reasoned. “It’s kind of like the experience: I have tried what I wanted to do.”

The response to both pieces was immediate, long-lived, and vicious. After Belkin’s piece ran, the Times reportedly received more mail—angry mail, from angry women—than it had ever before received about a single story. “I found the article depressing,” wrote one self-proclaimed “old-fashioned feminist.” “The personal is political. Remember that?” enjoined another. Katha Pollitt, a leading feminist writer, repudiated Belkin’s statistics (or, more accurately, lack thereof), arguing in The Nation that Belkin’s subjects represented at best a “blip,” a tiny downtick in working mothers driven, most likely, by a weakening economy. Likewise, the Times was deluged in 2005 by furious responses to Story’s piece, with women writing to complain about the students’ self-indulgence and passivity. Even now, eight years since the article’s publication, women regularly regale me with their reactions to it, describing everything from violent rage to a guilty sigh of relief.

It’s not surprising that the opt-out debate pushes every nasty button in the world of warring women. Because in trying to define a complex, highly idiosyncratic decision, writers like Belkin (unwittingly, perhaps, and unfortunately) tend to split women into two camps: Those Who Do (work at meaningful jobs that utilize their talents and contribute to the national well-being) and Those Who Don’t. Those Who Do (love their children and care about their emotional development) and Those Who Don’t. Adding insult to injury is the oft-bemoaned fact that the women in these stories are invariably well educated and well off, able to agonize over choices that poorer women never have the luxury of being miserable about. Unlike Katherine Brokaw, for example (the former lawyer profiled in the Times piece), most women in the United States (never mind the world) don’t have a fulfilling job and lucrative salary to walk away from. Unlike my friend Shireen, most women can’t build a wholly satisfying life around the philanthropy that their husband’s wealth provides. Indeed, for women on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, the choice between staying in and opting out is no choice at all. They stay in the workforce because they have to, and they pay probably the harshest penalties of all.

Yet there’s something very real about the opting-out portrayal; something that transcends class distinctions and tiffs about lifestyle choices. And that’s the fact that women—given the choice about their lives and careers—are making these choices differently than men. In the aggregate, and given a certain measure of financial security, they are making the choice between work and family in favor of the latter. According to one study, only 62 percent of the women who received MBAs from the University of Chicago between 1990 and 2006 were working full time ten years after graduation. According to another, half the women in each incoming class at a major professional services firm had left the firm—and indeed the workforce—within five to seven years of their arrival. In 2000, when the U.S. economy was booming, 22 percent of American women with professional degrees were not in the labor market at all.


Adapted from WONDER WOMEN by Debora L. Spar, published September 17th by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright (c) 2013 by Debora L. Spar. All rights reserved.