Every day, Anne Grim commuted three hours round-trip from family-friendly Westport, Conn., to Lower Manhattan to put in a full day at American Express Co. (AXP ). There, as a general manager for customer-information management, she was responsible for a staff of 625 worldwide. After September 11, she quit to raise her second child and then have a third -- but Grim, then 42, still longed for the intellectual challenge of the office. So last year, she put herself back in the job market, and soon a headhunter for Wells Fargo & Co. came calling. "San Francisco, right?" said Grim, intrigued. No, said the recruiter: Des Moines, Iowa. "That's when I started laughing," recalls Grim.
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Kerty Nilsson Levy -- born in Japan, schooled in Sweden, and a former a quality-control supervisor for a caviar plant in Beijing -- was also reassessing her life. She and her husband, two Harvard MBAs living on Nob Hill, had wanderlust for Turkey, Brazil, or Hungary. Or, suggested Levy's husband, he could join his father's real estate business in Des Moines, freeing up ample capital to comfortably start a family. "I agreed to go on a trial basis," says Levy, 38.
Today, both Levy and Grim -- along with more working mothers than in many other larger cities -- have made Des Moines their Shangri-la. Because of the town's mix of attributes -- big enough to be the No. 3 insurance hub but small enough to offer 10-minute, in-time-for-supper commutes -- many women report that the work-family balance that was a mirage when they lived in bigger cities has now become a reality. Says Grim, who took the Wells Fargo job after her husband, co-founder of an artificial-intelligence software company, said he was game: "I've got a great career with lots of opportunities -- and I still have a life." Levy, the president of Des Moines' Downtown Community Alliance, is now the mother of two. "After six months here, we said: Forget it," Levy explains. "We're not moving back."
Des Moines bills itself as motherhood, apple pie -- and a fast track to the top for working moms. Indeed, 70% of the managers in this city of 200,000 are women, the greatest percentage in America. That's nine percentage points more than Dallas and Indianapolis, for example, and 13 points more than Los Angeles, according to the Census Bureau. Professional women -- including CEOs, legislators, and financial managers -- outpace their male counterparts, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 15,081 vs. 9,388.
Yet it's not as if moving there always amounts to paradise. "To me, it seemed like living there would be a slow death," said an East Coast publishing exec who turned down a high-ranking job at Meredith Corp. (MDP ), one of the town's biggest employers. The drawbacks: Downtown Des Moines is a warren of lookalike insurance company buildings. Most professionals live in the suburbs, a hive of subdivision blandness. At Des Moines' innovative Downtown School, parents can drop off their kids and then walk to work through the toasty skywalk system. But the waiting list is long. The metro region's test scores are among the highest in the U.S., but overall the city school system is mixed, leaving many parents to put their kids in private school or leave town -- the same dilemma faced by moms on the more expensive coasts. For the airlines, Des Moines is a spoke, making for longer trips. It still lacks a great regional theater -- and until recently, it had only two Starbucks.
Still, despite its shortcomings, this midsize city in a state that is the No. 1 producer of corn and hogs is surprisingly appealing to manager moms. In the Des Moines metropolitan area, 70% of families with children under six have both parents in the workforce, beating the big cities. The working mom as the demographic norm offers a détente in the cultural war that often erupts elsewhere between stay-at-home moms and those who work. The critical mass also means companies have little choice but to cater to women. Ernst & Young and Bankers Trust allow women to design their own work schedules. Meredith offers the chance to buy more vacation with pretax dollars. At Principal Financial Group Inc. (PFG ), where two-thirds of its 14,000 employees are women, nursing moms pump in deluxe lactation centers.
Some say the progressiveness goes all the way back to the co-CEO ethos between husband and wife on the family farm. Des Moines women were also the first to train with the U.S. Army when it opened its first auxiliary training centers there in 1942. Fostering women's corporate careers, however, became crucial in the 1980s, when the statewide farming crisis wiped out jobs. That left the male-dominated manufacturing jobs, but those, too, continue to dwindle. Des Moines worked hard to replace the lost farming and factory work by inviting employers in the service sector, which generally hires more women. Financial and insurance companies responded, drawn in part by the way even secretaries could afford nice homes. Today, Des Moines is third to Hartford and London as an insurance hub and has a thriving mortgage industry. As more women became employed, more moved up the ranks. "Once you get women at the top, they tend to bring other women with them," says Jann Freed, a business professor at Central College in Pella, Iowa.
Certainly, Des Moines isn't for everyone. But at a time when skyrocketing home prices, the threat of terrorist attacks, and a half-an-hour a day of face time with the kids are high on working moms' worry list, Des Moines offers a growing number of them some unexpected peace of mind.
By Mara Der Hovanesian