CHICAGO. — Chicago -- The mother of the mommy track is telling the politically incorrect truth once again about women in the work force.
And once again she's right, like it or not.
Felice Schwartz, founder and president of Catalyst, is saying, essentially, that women are different from men in the workplace because they have babies and men don't. Rather than pretending children make no differences in the lives and careers of women, both women and employers should objectively face up to the new facts of life and restructure jobs to fit the new flood of female workers.
Women and their employers can handle these differences with a variety of proven business strategies that are mutually advantageous, Ms. Schwartz argues. But first women must stop acting as if they are just the same as men on the job. And employers must be willing to confront the issue without traditional prejudices and without fear of being nailed on charges of sex discrimination.
In their eager efforts to break sexist barriers in the workplace and win opportunities to use their abilities and education, women have insisted to employers that they could handle jobs just like men. They would work the same long hours and subordinate family responsibilities to employers' demands. If they had a baby, they would take only a few weeks of disability leave for childbirth and never let their offspring's needs intrude on their career.
But despite feminist rhetoric and expectations, it often doesn't work out that way. Many women discover they can't juggle children and full-time employment without enormous stress and fatigue. Or they fall so much in love with their youngster that their job pales in importance. Or they can't find child care they trust.
So millions of women decide not to return to work after their maternity leave ends. Or they come back exhausted and stressed-out by conflicting demands on their energies and time and are shunted off fast tracks into corporate backwaters.
Many employers resent the loss of money invested in training such women and are understandably reluctant to hire or promote other women who might fall into the baby trap. Some women ambitious for high-level careers decide not to have children at all. Many who do become mothers feel forced to give up jobs they have worked hard to attain, or to settle for work that does not use their full abilities or offer the same satisfactions.
Three years ago, Ms. Schwartz wrote a bombshell of an article for the Harvard Business Review pointing out these problems. She suggested that women had become so crucial to the work force that employers would benefit from restructuring jobs so that they could manage family responsibilities more easily.
Her argument spawned the ''mommy track'' pejorative. Although through Catalyst, Ms. Schwartz had spent almost three decades promoting careers for women, she was widely seen as betraying women and giving employers an excuse to keep them off the fast track, under the glass ceilings, working as corporate peons.
Now she has expanded her thesis in a new book, ''Breaking with Tradition,'' that urges employers and women to acknowledge the problem and redesign the workplace to fit the changing work force. Employers really have no choice but to do so, she insists; they can no longer afford to lose or underutilize women.
Ms. Schwartz proposes that employers go well beyond simply allowing a few talented women to work shorter hours or have a more flexible schedule. She urges positive and innovative planning to use women's talents more effectively, creative changes in job design, flexibility in competition for promotions and responsive policies toward concerns about family.
Employers who fail to make such changes will not only lose the best of their female employees, Ms. Schwartz predicts, but will be unable to compete successfully for new job entrants, a growing percentage of whom will be female.
Fast tracks can be made flexible, she points out. College tenureships, law-firm partnerships, medical residencies and other professional qualifying periods can be stretched out so they do not require so much intense effort just when child care is likely to be most demanding.
Ms. Schwartz talks about other strategies for flexibility -- job sharing, higher levels of part-time work, more shared family responsibilities with spouses, more options for working at home, on-site day care, longer maternity leaves, shortened work weeks. She notes that Catalyst research shows these options are cost-effective for employers.
But her book is not basically how-to recipes for changing the workplace. Instead it concentrates on why it is becoming inevitable and the attitudes that will make it happen most readily.
It won't be simple, Ms. Schwartz admits. It won't be easy. It won't happen quickly. But women will continue to flood the workplace. And most of them will, sooner or later, have babies.
That is the new reality. And it should be seen not as a problem but as an issue to be managed by changing job structures, changing corporate cultures, finding the right balance between the needs of the employer and the employees' family responsibilities.
Joan Beck is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.