April 01, 2010
The Mommy Track: Then and Now
Posted by Christine Hurt
A Slate essay this week marks the 21st anniversary of the term "mommy track."  Apparently, when the author, Angie Kim, and I were both seniors in college, getting ready to go to law school, an article in the Harvard Business Review, without using the term, suggested having separate career paths so that those who sought work-life family balance could contribute to the enterprise in a meaningful way but also attain other life goals.  Here's that article (full article is gated).  The author, Felice N. Schwartz, noted that studies were showing that professional women were much more expensive to hire than professional men because of turnover rates, etc.  So, she proposed a new way of thinking and structuring career paths: 
The studies will be useless—or worse, harmful—if all they teach us is that women are expensive to employ. What we need to learn is how to reduce that expense, how to stop throwing away the investments we make in talented women, how to become more responsive to the needs of the women that corporations must employ if they are to have the best and the brightest of all those now entering the work force.

Well, that doesn't sound like a rallying cry now, but apparently it was not well-received. Feminist commentators pooh-poohed this suggestion as proposing a "Mommy Track."  I don't specifically remember this public discourse, but I know that if, at 20, you had thrown this idea out for me, I would have balked.  Really balked.  When I was in law school (1990-'93, like the author), we never talked about work/life family balance.  We never talked about lifestyle.  I don't even remember having a conversation with anyone, male or female, about babies or motherhood.  I did have conversations about employers pushing us onto the Mommy Track without our permission.  (As an aside, my law school friends and I debated the 1991 Johnson Controls case, in which Johnson Controls barred fertile women from lead-exposing jobs and was successfully sued for discrimination.)

But I remember soon after that fielding questions from summer associates about maternity leave and part-time programs.  What?  I remember being both impressed at the foresight but also a little disappointed by the lack of ambition.  Then I fell in love and wanted to have ten babies.  At thirty, I had my first child (the author had hers at thirty-two).  By then, I had understood the wisdom of asking questions.

So now we are in a world where asking such questions is the norm.  Where firms compete at being family-friendly.  It's not a Utopia, of course, but definitely a sea-change.  Alternative career paths are seen as pro-feminist, not anti-feminist.  The Mommy Track has not, in  the words of Betty Friedan, became the "Mommy Trap."  And it's not just for Mommies.  I think the Mommy Track has grown up. 

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