'Mommy track' author has a new corporate vision

March 01, 1992|By Barbara Presley Noble | Barbara Presley Noble,New York Times News Service

Felice Schwartz has been out talking to corporations about women's issues since 1958, and has felt herself to be on very sure ground for a long time.

So when she decided to speak out on a forbidden corporate topic -- the biological fact that women have babies and the social fact that they work and have careers -- she chose to do it in an influential and widely read forum.

"The cost of employing women in management is greater than the cost of employing men," she wrote in the opening sentence of an article published three years ago in the prestigious Harvard Business Review.

"This is a jarring statement," she continued, "partly because it is true, but mostly because it is something people are reluctant to talk about."

Ms. Schwartz, the founder of Catalyst, a non-profit education and research group based in New York, soon found that if people were reluctant to talk about women, work and babies, they were not reluctant to talk about her.

For a few months she rode uncomfortably in the wash of the notorious "mommy track" controversy, accused of proposing a gender-based caste system designed to keep women barefoot, pregnant and at the edge of the fast track.

Now, she hopes to put the issue to rest. She has written a book, "Breaking With Tradition: Women and Work, the New Facts of Life," which reflects on her months as a feminist anti-Christ and expands on her vision of the egalitarian corporation.

"I was the one of the first victims of political correctness," she said. "I dared to violate the party line that women are not different from men," a reference to especially bitter criticism from feminist activists who accused her of undermining 20 years of legal gains for women and making discrimination easier.

On certain issues, Ms. Schwartz is resolute.

She still believes family issues are spoken of in whispers because male executives fear litigation and being seen as tyrannosauric.

And it is still a fundamental fact of life that women have babies -- and with them, despite increases in the amount of time men dedicate to household chores, a disproportionate responsibility for their care.

But the original picture she drew -- of the career-driven woman vs. career-and-family woman -- has yielded to an analysis of corporate structure and its driving force, ambition.

Her own paradigm is not the pyramid, that bottom-heavy structure the corporate world uses to represent itself.

"Women bump their heads early against the sides of the pyramid," she said, citing the early results of a Catalyst study that demonstrates the difficulty women have jumping from "staff" positions in areas like human resources to "line," or "fast track" positions in, say, finance.

Her chosen image is of a jungle gym, on which everyone, men included, can move laterally as well as up.

Several members of her own non-profit community thought Ms. Schwartz's original article put a huge burden on women and focused too much on massaging the current corporate system rather than transforming it.

Dana Friedman, co-president of the Families and Work Institute, a non-profit research group based in New York, wrote a letter to the review's editor commending the article "for bringing motherhood out of the closet."

The article, she said recently, was heretical: "It was bold and it was in the Harvard Business Review."

But while acknowledging the cost of pregnancy leaves and other special arrangements, she argues now that it is misleading to look only at women's behavioral patterns.

"There are several intriguing studies of men's life cycles, of how they pull in and out -- but at different stages than women," she said.

Critics may again find Ms. Schwartz too inclined to burden women with the sins of corporations. She suggests, for example, that young women discuss their family plans in job interviews -- a level of honesty and self-knowledge that seems above and beyond the call of integrity.

But on the basic issues, there is little disagreement.

"The United States is more dependent than ever on women in the work force," said Steven Clayton, vice president at Work/Family Directions, a consulting group in Boston. "More and more companies see an ability to attract and retain women as central to their future competitiveness."

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