April 18, 2011 Practice Points

"The Mommy Track": More Women are Choosing Both Career and Family

By Grace Wen

Does the “mommy track” exist, and are women choosing it? A recent article in the Wall Street Journal reports that the answer to both questions is yes. Over 20 years after Felice Schwartz’s 1989 Harvard Business Review article, entitled “Management Women and the New Facts of Life,” ignited the “mommy wars,” it appears that women can have it all.

As Schwartz explained in her seminal article, women are not all cut from the same mold. Some women will make “the same trade-offs traditionally made by the men who seek leadership positions.” Most women, however, want families and, once children enter their lives, these talented and creative women “are willing to trade some career growth and compensation for freedom from the constant pressure to work long hours and weekends.”

Schwartz advocated for flexibility in the workplace and encouraged employers to recognize that these women are a “precious resource.” To retain these productive women, Schwartz encouraged employers to offer accommodations, including part-time arrangements, which in most cases meant slower promotions and lower pay. And contrary to the prevailing belief at the time, Schwartz opined that “most career-and-family women are entirely willing to make that trade-off.”

Schwartz’s critics argued that this path would relegate women to “dead-end jobs.” As Schwartz correctly predicted, however, women are able to achieve the once-elusive combination of career and children in greater numbers than ever before. This is due in part to new work patterns and flexibility as well as a shift in women’s attitude. Younger women, in particular, are choosing paths that allow for both career and family without having to make an all-or-nothing choice. Rather than leaving the labor force, highly educated women today are taking less time off and are instead choosing to work part-time. One survey found that 21–27 percent of women who graduated in the 1980s had both a career and family by the time they turned 40, compared with 13–17 percent of women who graduated between 1966 and 1979.

For example, a study of University of Chicago MBAs found that, 10 years after graduation, only half of women with children worked full-time. Many established their own consulting practices that allow for flexible, project-based work. These “MBA mothers seem to actively choose jobs that are family friendly and avoid jobs with long hours and greater career-advancement possibilities.” Having it all may have a price, but it is a price many women are willing to pay, just as Schwartz suggested.

Grace Wen, Richards Kibbe & Orbe LLP, New York, NY

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