"Mommy Track" Without Shame

A notorious article urging flexibility is proven right

The Wall Street Journal, "Commerce & Culture" , March 26, 2011

Motherhood, it seems, is the Middle East of social controversy. Alliances may shift, new dogmas and leaders may arise, tactics may change, but the fundamental conflict resists resolution. Despite the efforts of would-be peacemakers, impassioned partisans continue battling to claim all the territory as their own. My way, they declare, is the one right way to be a good mother, a real woman, a fulfilled human being.

Fortunately, nobody dies in the mommy wars (a term popularized by Newsweek 21 years ago). And, despite the ongoing verbal assaults, American women have actually established a modus vivendi. Most continue to have and raise children and, in greater numbers than ever before, to combine motherhood not just with jobs but careers—vocations in which they make long-term investments and from which they derive not only income but personal satisfaction and identity.

Irony of ironies, they do so largely by following the advice of Felice Schwartz, who ignited the first great conflagration of the modern mommy wars with her 1989 Harvard Business Review article "Management Women and the New Facts of Life," or, as it was immediately and derisively labeled, "The Mommy Track."

Ms. Schwartz, who died in 1996, began with the idea that not all professional women are alike. Some focus primarily on careers, making "the same trade-offs traditionally made by the men who seek leadership positions." But most want children, and once they have kids, 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."

Instead of treating such women as pathetic losers to be jettisoned for a new crop of recruits, she argued, companies should recognize them as a "precious resource." Such women could bring experience, continuity and talent to middle-management jobs traditionally occupied by short-termers on their way up or "mediocre" men whose ambitions outstripped their ability.

To retain these productive women, wise employers should offer more flexibility, including part-time arrangements. This accommodation would, in most cases, mean slower promotions and lower pay. But, Ms. Schwartz maintained, "most career-and-family women are entirely willing to make that trade-off."

You just couldn't say so in public. Lower pay for less work offended the reigning idea of a serious career. Ms. Schwartz, critics charged, wanted to consign women to "dead-end jobs."

By the late 1980s, however, younger women—those in college—had already begun talking about their futures in new ways. Harvard economist Claudia Goldin recalls that, unlike her own cohort of early baby boomers, these younger women didn't plan to postpone family life while pursuing career goals. They wanted "'CAREERANDFAMILY' or 'FAMILYANDCAREER,' as if the words were not three but one and as if the timing of the two goals would not be an issue," she recounts in a 2004 article.

Those ambitions produced the angst and absolutism of the mommy wars. But, Prof. Goldin concludes from survey data, women who graduated in the 1980s were much more likely than their predecessors to achieve that once-elusive combination. By the time they turned 40, between 21% and 27% had both careers and children—up from 13% to 18% among women who graduated between 1966 and 1979. (About three-quarters of both groups had kids.)

Most of the gains came from new work patterns that no longer forced women to make an all-or-nothing choice. Sixty percent of pharmacists are now female, for example, a sharp increase that coincides with the rise of chain pharmacies offering flexible hours.

Nor are highly educated women "opting out." In a study of Harvard graduates co-written with Lawrence F. Katz, Prof. Goldin found that women with children left the labor force for no more than two years altogether, with younger women (graduating from 1989 to 1992) taking less time than their elders. A third of all female graduates worked part-time, however, compared to less than 10% of men.

Similarly, a study of University of Chicago MBAs, with Marianne Bertrand, found that, a decade after graduation, women with children work on average 24% fewer weekly hours than men. (Women without children work about 3% fewer hours.) Only half of them work full-time. Many strike out on their own, establishing consulting practices that permit flexible, project-based work. "MBA mothers," the economists write, "seem to actively choose jobs that are family-friendly, and avoid jobs with long hours and greater career-advancement possibilities."

Just as Felice Schwartz suggested.