Two Decades Later, Who's On The Mommy Track?


working-momMost of us reading this have been hearing the phrase “mommy track” at least since beginning our careers, if not longer. As a refresher, the term refers, somewhat derisively, to the idea that employees, especially female ones, could follow the typical workaholic American track if that was their desire, and women who want a little more work-life balance could have flextime, job sharing, part-time work, and so on. The idea was posited by Felice Schwartz in a 1999 article in Harvard Business Review, which was prompted by the idea that companies were losing talented women because of their inflexibility.

This article in Slate notes that the “mommy track” turns 21 this year. Angie Kim, a Harvard Law graduate and hugely successful person, writes about feeling like the only person in her law school class who has stepped off the go-go-go success track, and discovering at her law school reunion that in fact the majority of women in her class have done so.

It’s a well written article, but I found myself shaking my head for most of it. It’s just enormously skewed towards Kim’s reality as a super-high achiever who’s managed to have three kids while doing some interesting things with her life. But she seems to draw the conclusion that the “mommy track” actually exists as an option for most of us because her cohort of highly educated women have had that option. Down here in the mediocre middle, though, those “mommy track”-style jobs are vanishingly rare, if they exist at all. I’ve written about this same issue locally, and few companies offer any sort of work-life balance programs.

If they do, they are things like letting you work 35 hours a week instead of 40 for a few months after coming back from maternity leave, or programs for women who have “off-ramped” so that they can keep in touch with their company and their industry. And again, these are companies where they can cherry-pick the best and the brightest. The vast majority of my friends have had to make the choice between full time work (which we all know doesn’t mean 40 hour weeks, just 40 paid hours) in order to not lose the career they’ve worked so hard for, or full time stay-at-home parenting. Most of us would have chosen a middle way, had here been one. Meaningful part-time work is just about nonexistent, and “flextime” consists of the choice to start anytime between 7 am and 9 am, and leave eight hours later, except of course your boss keeps scheduling meetings outside of your flex hours so you end up just working longer days (not that I have ANY personal experience with that one or anything).

Kim seems to think the “mommy track” ideal of work-life balance has been achieved, because her elite group of high achieving women have done it. For those of us with degrees from (gasp) state universities or maybe not even degrees at all, the reality is much, much different. If flexibility exists, it tends to be an informal arrangement between a supervisor and employee, not an official workplace policy.

What’s been your reality? If you stay home, would you have done so if you had the option of a “mommy track” job? If you work full-time, would you prefer not to and work part time instead? And why, why, why, is balance so hard to find?