Ten years ago, the “Harvard Business Review” ran an essay called “Management Women and the Facts of Life.” It began with this provocative sentence: “The cost of employing women in management is greater than the cost of employing men.”
The reason for this difference, the author argued, was that many women were interrupting or else entirely giving up their careers after they had children. In turn, companies were losing the considerable investments that they’d made in recruiting, training, and developing those women. The solution, the author suggested, was for corporations to become more responsive to the needs of women looking to combine family and work. The essay offered a number of suggestions, including providing options like longer maternity leaves, part-time work, job sharing, and more flexible benefits.
At first, the essay produced only modest reaction, most of it positive. Then, roughly nine weeks after the essay was published, the “New York Times” ran a story that prompted a firestorm: It reported that Felice Schwartz, author of the HBR essay, had advocated a separate “mommy track” aimed at the sort of woman who is “valuable to the company for her willingness to accept lower pay and little advancement in return for a flexible schedule that allows her to accommodate family needs.” The “Times” piece also included outraged responses from prominent feminists, including Betty Friedan and then-Congresswoman Pat Schroeder.
A prominent feminist herself, Schwartz was the founder and president of Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that spent 30 years working with businesses to facilitate upward mobility for women. She was also my mother.
Her life was forever changed by the controversy she prompted. My mother believed that she was simply exhorting corporations not to squander their investment in a huge pool of talented women by refusing to be more flexible during their child-rearing years. Her lifelong mission had been to increase women’s options — a word that she used so frequently and passionately in our household that my two siblings and I rolled our eyes whenever we heard it. But in the aftermath of the “Times” article, my mother was pilloried as an enemy of women’s progress and a stalking-horse for sexist CEOs.
Nearly 500 articles were written about the controversy, including an excoriating editorial in the “New York Times” (despite the fact that the “Times” itself had virtually no women in top management positions at the time). My mother was interviewed more than 75 times — for newspapers and magazines, as well as for television and radio. The idea of being a celebrity didn’t interest her; explaining her mission — and trying to set the record straight — did.
Three years ago, my mother died. One of her very few regrets was that she felt so misunderstood by many of the people whose cause she’d championed for so long. On the 10th anniversary of the publication of my mother’s essay, I decided to revisit it to figure out what she had really said — and to see to what extent her prescriptions have been heeded, for better or for worse.
With the benefit of distance, I realized that the “Times” article had vastly oversimplified my mother’s essay, casting one small part of what she had said in a very negative light. At the same time, she had made herself vulnerable to criticism by suggesting that one way for corporations to address women’s differing needs was to divide women into two categories: “career primary” and “career and family.”
It was an inflammatory notion, but more important, it wasn’t an especially realistic one. Who knew which category a woman in her twenties might eventually choose — and how her priorities might change over the years? The irony is that by polarizing people, my mother’s controversial suggestion prompted a national debate about the more fundamental issue raised in her essay.
The central argument that my mother made was that companies needed to provide women with more flexibility, rather than force them to choose between work and family. To make this case, she had the courage to speak out loud at least two truths that virtually no one else — male corporate executives or women — had been willing to acknowledge openly. First, men and women are different. And second, women are far more inclined than men to give high priority to raising their children, even if doing so requires making sacrifices in their careers.
My mother was a pragmatist. She appealed not to the conscience of male corporate executives but to their bottom line. Companies are already losing productivity and profit, she said, by not finding ways to meet the needs of women with children. It will become increasingly difficult, she insisted, to attract and retain such women without offering them more support and flexibility. Because women represent an increasing percentage of the workforce, and because the bidding for the best of them is intensifying, companies won’t be able to compete unless they find ways to make women happy.
She was just as blunt in addressing women. It’s an illusion, she said, to think that you can have it all. If what you want is to focus on your career and compete for the top, then you’re going to have to spend less time with your children — a trade-off that many men have been making for decades, and not always happily. Conversely, if you want to make raising your children your highest priority, then you’re going to have to accept some impact on your career, at least temporarily.
My mother was not arguing that any choice need be permanent. Take her own life, for example. After running a national organization when she was in her early twenties, she quit her job to raise three children. Seven years later, when my brother began kindergarten, my mother founded Catalyst — a company that eventually became more than a full-time career.
So what has happened during the past decade?
The good news is that “flexibility,” “talent retention,” and “work-life balance” have become closely linked buzzwords throughout much of corporate America. More than 60% of Fortune 500 companies now offer some kind of flexible option at work — a vast increase in the 10 years since my mother wrote her essay.
The most forward-looking companies have instituted a wide variety of changes. At Sara Lee, whose CEO, John Bryan, is Catalyst’s former chairman, managers’ bonuses are tied to the level of their subordinates’ satisfaction with such issues as work-life balance. “It’s very difficult for a bunch of old white men sitting around in a room to acculturate companies to changing times,” says Bryan bluntly. “You need diversity now, and female diversity is an extremely important element of that.”
At Ernst & Young, the relationship between flexibility and making an effort to satisfy women couldn’t be more explicit. In 1995, the company formed a gender-equity task force. Its mandate included addressing the question of why more than 50% of new hires were women, but a disproportionate number of women were leaving the company — and only 5% of all partners were women. Catalyst, post-Felice Schwartz, was brought in to study the issue and to make recommendations. A year later, lead Catalyst consultant Deborah Holmes was hired to launch an “office of retention” that reports directly to Ernst & Young Chairman Philip A. Laskaway.
During the past 18 months, Holmes and her group have launched a series of pilot projects, including a mentoring program for women and networks through which women can meet and provide mutual support. The company has also created a companion database, which provides everyone in the company with access to information about these programs. The number of women partners at the company has doubled to 10%, and Holmes herself, who has a young child, was recently named a partner.
The bad news is that many companies are still making only token efforts to address their employees’ needs for flexibility, or are doing nothing at all. There also remains a wide gulf between male CEOs and corporate women over just how effectively issues like the work-family balance are being addressed. According to a 1997 Family and Work Institute study, for example, 50% of all male CEOs believe that conditions for women have greatly improved, while only 25% of women agree. And 40% of women say that changes in their companies have been minimal or nonexistent, while only 6% of CEOs share that view.
It almost doesn’t matter who is right. The reality — for companies and for CEOs accustomed to dictating the terms of employment — is that workers are increasingly gaining control of the means of production: the knowledge that they take home with them each night, as well as access to the Web and other communication technologies that give them broad, inexpensive reach.
While the balance of power has already begun to shift, most male CEOs still don’t fully get it: Companies that want to attract the best employees, maximize their productivity, and maintain their loyalty need management that is far more sensitive and responsive to work-life balance issues. As central as all of these issues are for women, flexibility and family-friendly policies are also becoming high priorities for men — particularly for those who share child-raising responsibilities. This, too, my mother predicted. “The vast majority of men and women want to combine career and family, and want to switch their main focus from time to time throughout their lives,” she wrote several years after her original essay appeared. “These men and women require flexibility to be maximally productive at work and to be active and responsible players in their lives.”
Sure enough, a 1998 Catalyst study of more than 800 two-career couples found no meaningful differences in the way that men and women answered questions about the work-life balance in their lives. More than 75% of both genders said that they would look for family-leave policies in any new employer. Nearly two-thirds said that they would seek formalized, flexible work programs and the opportunity either to work at home or to telecommute. More than 50% said that they would seek company-supported child care.
The companies that stand to gain the greatest competitive advantage will be those whose mostly male CEOs share power with women. Providing flexibility is a first step. But the bigger challenge — so far almost completely unmet — is for male CEOs to fill 50% of their top management positions with women and, ultimately, to designate the best of those women as their successors.
If my mother were still around, she would be feeling vindicated right about now. But she’d also be saying — unflinchingly — that the battle ain’t over yet.
Tony Schwartz (email@example.com) is a writer whose current work focuses on integrating work and life.