According to a Slate article , it has been twenty-one years since the term "Mommy Track" began describing career options with flexible schedules, job sharing, telecommuting and generous leave policies. The concept has remained hotly debated: prominent feminist Betty Friedan called it the "Mommy Trap" and Ellen Goodman of The Washington Post associated it with "ghettoized, second-class" status for women while Lisa Belkin, writing for The New York Times, declared it the centerpiece of a positive, women-driven "Opt-Out Revolution."
As the idea of a "Mommy Track" gets older, the rhetoric and policies surrounding the subject have changed. Writing for Slate earlier this year, Angie Kim, suggested that rather than treating the "Mommy Track" as a questionable and marginal alternative to traditional career tracks, perhaps we should take flexible career options as the new standard for the twenty-first century and redirect our scrutiny towards the expectations and limitations inherent in the old model. Kim cites a Time cover story from 2005 which opened with a father "hopping onto the mommy track" and closed with the prediction that flexibility, with its potential to retain talent and cut back costs, was the way of the future. (And this was before cost-cutting measures became de rigeur with the recession.)
Increasing reports point to fathers and non-parents who are interested in a flexible "Mommy Track" alternative. A Father's Day article by The New York Times stated that "fathers are now struggling just as much - and sometimes even more - than mothers in trying to fulfill their responsibilities at home and in the office." A 2008 study from the Families and Work Institute called "Times Are Changing" revealed that compared with 1977, working fathers are, on average, spending almost ten more hours with children during the workweek. The study also found that while in 1977, men and women reported work-life conflict at equal rates of 34 percent, in 2008, 45 percent of men reported conflict while 39 percent of women reported the same, suggesting that the problem was growing at a more rapid clip for fathers than for mothers.
So what's to be done? In an earlier blog post, An Investigation of Gender and Sexuality in the Workplace, we examined Sweden's generous paternity leave policy, and the effects of that policy on work-life balance issues for both men and women. In 2005, a Fortune magazine survey of male senior executives at Fortune 500 companies found that 84 percent want "job options that let them realize their professional aspirations while having more time for things outside work." A 55 percent majority was willing to take pay cuts for more time, almost three quarters (73%) of the senior executives believed that senior management positions could be restructured to be both more productive and more flexible, and finally, the kicker, a whopping 87 percent believed that companies that don't adopt more flexible career options will be disadvantaged in attracting talent. The sum of these numbers is a situation where companies stand to save money and become more productive with the "Mommy Track" or lose talent without it; and this time mothers aren't the ones talking. Howard Schultz, chairman of Starbucks reported that "Men are willing to talk about these things in ways that were inconceivable less than ten years ago."
Maybe it's time to re-conceive the "Mommy Track." "Parent Track" is more gender neutral (though ripe for puns), "Flex-track" is fairly accurate, but I'm partial to Kim's suggestion: "sanity track, anyone?"
Building a Better Legal Profession (BBLP) is an organization based at Stanford Law School. BBLP is a national grassroots movement that seeks market-based workplace reforms in large private law firms. For more information, visit BBLP's Web site at www.betterlegalprofession.org.