Commentary: Goodbye, Boss Lady. Hello, Soccer Mom

High-profile bailouts from corporate life bring women's conflicts into sharp focus

Does having a great career kill your chances of having a kid? Ever since women started pouring into Corporate America 30 years ago, most have been trying to get in step with what often feels like an impossible dance: searching for a husband while fighting for a promotion, being a good mom and staying a corporate star. This month, a new book published by Talk Miramax, Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, reiterates what many women already know: that success in the job still too often leads to childlessness.

The book, by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder of the National Parenting Assn., mirrors the findings of earlier studies by New York research group Catalyst. Hewlett, an economist who taught at Barnard, found that the higher a woman's position in a U.S. corporation, the less likely she is to have children. In fact, 49% of women who are 40 and making $100,000 or more in Corporate America are childless, vs. only 19% of 40-year-old men in the same salary bracket, according to Hewlett's study. What's worrisome is that only 14% of respondents said this was their choice. Catalyst also found a baby gap. Its research shows that while 49% of women MBAs over 40 have kids, 74% of men do.

Can it be that even after decades of talk about work and family, it's still an either-or proposition? The answer, much of the time, is yes. For the first time in 25 years, a growing number of women at the peak of their careers are dropping out to stay home with their families, according to U.S. Census figures. True, the gains of the boom have afforded many the option. But some admit another reason: Corporate life for a mom can be hell.

Last year, iVillage founder Candice Carpenter--who embodied the iVillage ideal of having the cash, the kids, and the career--announced she was swapping corporate life for the job of full-time housewife. On Mar. 1, Susan D. Wellington, president of U.S. Beverages at Quaker North America, announced her "leave of absence" after 20 years to "devote more time to her personal life and family."

These are just the latest high-profile examples of the low success rates of keeping top women in senior executive jobs. Even programs such as telecommuting and flextime often fail. Taking advantage of such schemes is often tantamount to asking not to be promoted. Moreover, these strategies don't do enough to change career trajectories, still largely patterned after men's life cycles--with no allowances for breaks to raise kids.

Yet the key career-building period of the late 20s and 30s coincides with a woman's prime fertility years. By the time they can take a breather, having children may no longer be an option. Still, dropping out isn't a panacea. Those at home full-time with preschool kids have the highest rates of depression among women. And quitting work can marginalize women economically. Fully 40% of divorced mothers end up in poverty.

Enlightened employers such as Merrill Lynch & Co. are finding that their retention efforts work when they build accountability into programs. Merrill Lynch makes a point of keeping tabs on telecommuting employees to ensure they are being promoted as fast as their peers. Other winners: job sharing and creating part-time work that offers proportional pay, perks, and chances for advancement.

Such programs will become even more urgent as Gen X women start to rise through the ranks. Demographers point to shifting attitudes among these 25-to-37-year-old professionals, who are starting to make different choices. Census findings for 2000 show that 55% of mothers with children less than a year old were working or looking for work in 2000--a decrease from 60% in 1998. The share of women who stayed in their jobs during their first pregnancy has also slipped for the first time since 1961.

And who can blame them? Most people who aspire to executive jobs in Corporate America still sign a Faustian pact that involves weekend work, constant moves, and other personal sacrifices to get ahead. Most women don't have house husbands to manage their families. No wonder one of General Motors Corp.'s up-and-comers, Susan Shank, a 33-year-old managing director of the GMAC mortgage group, has already ruled out the top job. "I want to have a family--and that seems tough as the CEO of GM," says Shank. Like so many others before her, she'll be settling for less.

By Michelle Conlin and Diane Brady

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