The Pregnant Silence In Corporate America


Felice N. Schwartz

Warner Books -- 332pp -- $21.95

It's time for some role playing. Here's the scenario:

A 22-year-old woman, a recent graduate of a top journalism school, lines up an interview with the editor of a great newspaper. Right off the bat, he asks whether she plans to have children. How should she respond?

A feminist writer plays the role of the job applicant. "What kind of question is that?" she retorts. "It's not relevant to my qualifications for this job."

"I really need to know," the editor says. "What are your plans?"

Citing Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the aspiring journalist threatens legal action and refuses to answer.

Me? I'd hedge. Now a working mother with two young kids, I remember how desperate I was seeking a job in journalism in my 20s. Should I have addressed matters of pregnancy, maternity leave, and flexible hours? They didn't concern me then. And consider my competition: a bevy of young men who could promise 100% devotion to the company. Sure I'd want kids some day, but this was hardly the time to suggest I might need time off to raise them.

Don't expect Felice Schwartz to participate in this "pattern of silence." In Breaking with Tradition: Women and Work, the New Facts of Life, Schwartz contends that not only women but also Corporate America must address head-on the problems facing women in the work force. Failure to confront the issues of motherhood and child-rearing, she says, hurts women and business.

So how did Schwartz answer the question from the "editor" when she was playing the role of the job seeker in a panel discussion? She said she did expect to have kids but was currently "on fire with journalism, ready to give my all." Would she leave the paper when she had a child? Well, she'd want to play an active role in her child's life, but her career was essential. She might choose to work part-time for a "finite period," before coming back to "my former fast pace."Such openness, Schwartz says, helps shift the dialogue between employer and employee from "confrontation to conciliation." More than that, putting the issues on the table is a prerequisite for resolving them. "Denying that women have babies leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure for women and their employers," she says. "When employers don't provide flexibility and women don't assert their need for it, the attitudes, behaviors, policies, and practices of employers remain unanalyzed, unchallenged, and unchanged. Then, women find they can't handle the cumulative pressures of motherhood and a career." The results are bad for everybody: Productivity may lag, and women with valuable skills may drop out. Until babies become part of a corporation's planning, she says, the problems will persist.

So Breaking with Tradition is more a warning to corporate executives than a plan of action for women. As head of Catalyst, a not-for-profit organization that helps companies resolve "women issues," Schwartz contends that dealing with the needs of working mothers makes good business sense. As the proportion of males in the U.S. population shrinks, she says, businesses will need talented women. The need will only increase as the U.S. feels the impact of a sharply lower overall fertility rate.

The main problem with her approach is that it's unrealistic, especially in 1992, as the recession forces huge layoffs of male and female workers. Even when businesses rehire, as they are doing on Wall Street, they're not replacing everyone. Some are shrinking their work forces permanently, in part through automation. Can women afford to venture out on the limb Schwartz proffers?

Schwartz gained a measure of notoriety in 1989, when she published a Harvard Business Review article urging that women juggling career and family be allowed to pursue a less demanding track than men or childless women. Her idea, which the media dubbed the "mommy track," a phrase she here calls pejorative, set off heated debate. Schwartz, critics said, was condemning working mothers to permanent second-class status.

She takes an entire, often excruciatingly self-serving chapter to explain that, on the contrary, she seeks "an alternative track for committed professionals." That means allowing women to cut back on hours for as long as five years, then return "refreshed, enriched by the experience of parenting, free of guilt, and ready to go full speed for a total of 36 years." That way, companies that have invested in training women before they had kids can retain their talent.

Schwartz's book suffers from a lack of fine-tuning. The final chapters are repetitive, and I could do without a section with simple-minded diagrams in which she argues that the traditional corporate pyramid should give way to a "jungle gym," in which employees can move in any direction, depending on their needs. She also goes on at length about a female B-school grad who removed her wedding ring for a job interview--to show how women dodge the issues. My own informal poll suggests this practice is not widespread.

Schwartz's candor is her greatest asset. By breaking "the conspiracy of silence" on issues that impede women's ability to compete at work, she forces readers to take a hard look at the problem. But how candid would I be? Again, I put myself in the shoes of a young job seeker. The editor asks: "Do you plan to have children?" How do I answer?

I'd hedge.