Working Mothers Look for More Flexible Workplaces

If you're a working mother, you're far from alone in feeling overwhelmed. Along with grueling work hours, data show you can face discrimination at work because of the conflicting demands of motherhood. And all the while, social pressures are mounting on you to be a perfect parent.

So it shouldn't surprise you that more working mothers see part-time, rather than full-time, work as the ideal employment situation.

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that when working mothers were asked about their "ideal" situation, only 21 percent cited full-time work, down from 32 percent in 1997. Instead, 60 percent of this year's respondents cited part-time work as "ideal," up sharply from 48 percent a decade earlier, while 19 percent of employed moms this year said they'd prefer not to work outside the home at all.

Of course, many mothers can't afford to scale down to part-time work - if they can even find it. But the mounting appeal of that arrangement highlights the extent to which today's conditions beleaguer working moms.

Not only are they expected to meet corporate America's drive for productivity - and all the demands that entails - but they're also counted on to play a key role in their children's lives. All the while, some moms also may be caring for aging parents.

Often, there aren't enough hours in the day to juggle all these tasks, says Marlene Star of Westchester County, N.Y. She knows the toll full-time work can take on family life. The mother of three, who works as an editor in New York City, says she doesn't get enough face time with her kids. "I don't know the names of all my children's friends and I wouldn't recognize them if I bumped into them. I don't know their parents - or my children's teachers - as well as I would like. I also can't pick up the kids after school. There is a lot of being in touch that I don't have" as a full-time employee. But with part-time work, "there would be many school events and parent interactions I could get involved with."

"I very much like my work," she says, "I'd just like less of it."

To be sure, many employers have noticed the rising concern among employees about excessive work demands - and the desire for more "work-life balance." And at least a few organizations have been adopting novel approaches to address these and other needs of today's workforce.

But to critics, the most common methods of addressing employees' work-life balance - such as flexible working schedules, telecommuting, and (to a much lesser extent) job sharing - haven't filled the need. In some cases, they seem to have made matters worse.

When some employees have tried to use such programs, some critics charge, they've been stigmatized as uncommitted workers, thereby heightening their frustration.

Consider the findings of Pamela Stone, a sociology professor at Hunter College in New York City. As she chronicled in her book, "Opting Out?," Ms. Stone interviewed 54 previously high-powered working mothers across the country who had left the business world.

Two-thirds of these mothers had been able to arrange some kind of part-time work schedule after becoming parents. But even this arrangement proved unworkable for all these mothers.

"Their work hours started ramping up, they felt dead-ended in their jobs, and their meaningful responsibilities were taken away" because they had become part-time workers.

"As the women encountered all this negative reinforcement, they started disengaging," says Stone. "They began wondering why they were taking time away from their family for a job they hadn't been trained to do."

Mentors keep moms on track

But clearly, some businesses realize they can't afford to lose such talent. And as more workers in general - not just moms - seek greater work-life balance, as well as career development, new solutions to these needs are emerging.

For instance, just over a year ago, the international professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) in New York launched Full Circle. The program is designed for PWC professionals who want to leave the workforce for up to five years to care for their children or parents. During this stint, program participants get annual training to keep their skills fresh. They also have a coach - a PWC employee - who keeps in touch with them while they are gone and helps them transition back to the firm when they are returning to work.

The idea is to retain talent, explains Jennifer Allyn, PWC's managing director in the Office of Diversity.

"Every time a professional leaves us, it costs the firm $80,000 in recruiting costs and lost productivity," she says. The New York-based Deloitte & Touche USA is now rolling out a broad new program, called Mass Career Customization (MCC). According to the firm, this "unique" program is "designed to encourage more robust and transparent career conversations."

Specifically, it provides all 40,000 of Deloitte's US employees with a framework for discussing with supervisors their career goals in four areas: pace of career progression; workload; location and schedule of work - i.e., where and when it gets done; and work role, which involves an employee's position or job responsibilities.

"The objective is to allow each employee to partner with his or her supervisor to customize their career path over time by making choices along each of those dimensions, understanding the trade-offs of their choices," said Anne Weisberg, a director in the Women's Initiative at Deloitte. She is also coauthor of the new book, "Mass Career Customization."

Since MCC will involve all employees, it "will be much better for working mothers" than flexible working arrangements, Ms. Weisberg says. "It will eliminate the stigma attached to making career choices that are different from the norm."

New programs attractive, but rare

But, as attractive as such programs may sound, they're still unusual. For many moms, corporate America still doesn't fill their need for work-life balance. Some of these mothers - who don't want to quit working - chart their own courses, taking such steps as changing careers or becoming self-employed. And some of these creative efforts have paid off well.

Take the case of Jennifer Nelson of Hopewell, N.J., a mother of three who has switched careers from journalism to teaching. No longer confronted with eight- to nine-hour work days, she's now back at home by roughly 3:30 p.m. on weekdays. She's also able to do some class preparation at home, including writing up lesson plans and grading papers.

"Teaching is not overly stressful and can be fun," she says. "And if you have to work full time, it's a more family friendly profession than many others, because it lets you have more time at home with the kids."
Given her family responsibilities, Ms. Nelson says she "would love to be working four hours a day." But she would not prefer to be a stay-at-home mom.

"Having a job helps you have your own identity, while earning a living and hopefully doing something you enjoy. Without a job," she says. "I'd get bored, and I'd miss the social interaction at work."

Fit work in around family schedule

Lisa Skvarla, of West Seattle, Wash., manages a martial-arts studio and keeps up a part-time acting career. And in both cases, the mother of two fashions her work hours around her family's schedule. For instance, she'll teach martial arts classes in the morning while her kids are in school.

And when she returns for evening classes, her kids are often with her. In some cases, they even assist with teaching classes. Her husband also helps teach classes in the evenings.

"I've structured my work around my family and my family around my work," Ms. Skvarla says. "Having such flexibility in my life goes a long way toward helping me be a mom and be happy."

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