Blowing the Whistle on the ‘Mommy Track’ (July/August 1989)

“Success is indeed usually incompatible with motherhood—as well as with any engaged and active form of fatherhood. … It is the corporate culture itself that needs to slow down to a human pace.”

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From the July/August 1989 issue of Ms. magazine:

When a feminist has something bad to say about women, the media listen. Three years ago it was Sylvia Hewlett, announcing in her book A Lesser Life that feminism had sold women out by neglecting to win childcare and maternity leaves.

This year it’s Felice Schwartz, the New York-based consultant who argues that women—or at least the mothers among us—have become a corporate liability. They cost too much to employ, she argues, and the solution is to put them on a special lower-paid, low-pressure career track—the now-notorious “mommy track.”

The “mommy track” story rated prominent coverage in the New York Times and USA Today, a cover story in Business Week, and airtime on dozens of talk shows. Schwartz, after all, seemed perfectly legitimate. She is the president of Catalyst, an organization that has been advising corporations on women’s careers since 1962. She had published her controversial claims in no less a spot than the Harvard Business Review, titled “Management Women and the New Facts of Life,” January-February 1989. And her intentions, as she put in a later op-ed, seemed thoroughly benign: “to urge employers to create policies that help mothers balance career and family responsibilities.”

Schwartz’s argument seemed to confirm what everybody already knew. Women haven’t been climbing up the corporate ladder as fast as might once have been expected, and women with children are still, on average, groping around the bottom rungs. Only about 40 percent of top female executives have children, compared to 95 percent of their male peers. There have been dozens of articles about female dropouts: women who slink off the fast track, at age 30-something, to bear a strategically timed baby or two. In fact, the “mommy track”—meaning a lower-pressure, flexible or part-time approach to work—was neither a term Schwartz used nor her invention. It was already, in an anecdotal sort of way, a well-worn issue.

Most of the controversy focused on Schwartz’s wildly anachronistic “solution.” Corporate employers, she advised, should distinguish between two categories of women: “career-primary” women, who won’t interrupt their careers for children and hence belong on the fast track with the men, and “career-and-family” women, who should be shunted directly to the mommy track.

Schwartz had no answers for the obvious questions: How is the employer supposed to sort the potential “breeders” from the strivers? Would such distinction even be legal? What about fathers? But in a sense, the damage had already been done. A respected feminist, writing in a respected journal, had made a case that most women can’t pull their weight in the corporate world, and should be paid accordingly. 

Few people, though, actually read Schwartz’s article. The first surprise is that it contains no evidence to support her principal claim, that “the cost of employing women in management is greater than the cost of employing men.” Schwartz offers no data, no documentation at all—except for two unpublished studies by two anonymous corporations. Do these studies really support her claim? Were they methodologically sound? Do they even exist? There is no way to know.

How is the employer supposed to sort the potential ‘breeders’ from the strivers? Would such distinction even be legal? What about fathers?

In 2022, the percent of employed mothers with children under age 18 was 72.9 percent. In the 1980s, just over half of all mothers were either employed or looking for work. (MoMo Productions via Getty Images)

Few media reports of the “mommy track” article bothered to mention the peculiar nature of Schwartz’s “evidence.”

We, however, were moved to call the Harvard Business Review and inquire whether the article was representative of its normal editorial standard. Timothy Blodgett, the executive director, defended the article as “an expression of opinion and judgment.” When we suggested that such potentially damaging “opinions” might need a bit of bolstering, he responded by defending Schwartz: “She speaks with a tone of authority. That comes through.”

(The conversation went downhill from there, with Blodgett stating sarcastically, “I’m sure your article in Ms. will be very objective.” Couldn’t fall much lower than the Harvard Business Review, we assured him.)

Are managerial women more costly to employ than men? As far as we could determine—with the help of the Business and Professional Women’s Foundation and Women’s Equity Action League—there is no published data on this point. A 1987 government study did show female managerial employees spending less time with each employer than males (5 years compared to 6.8 years), but there is no way of knowing what causes this turnover or what costs it incurs. And despite pregnancy, and despite women’s generally greater responsibility for child-raising, they use up on the average only 5.1 sick days per year, compared to 4.9 for men.

The second surprise, given Schwartz’s feminist credentials, is that the article is riddled with ancient sexist assumptions—for example, about the possibility of a more androgynous approach to child-raising and work. She starts with the unobjectionable statement that “maternity is biological rather than culture.” The same thing, after all, could be said of paternity. But a moment later, we find her defining maternity as “a continuum that begins with an awareness of the ticking of the biological clock, proceeds to the anticipation of motherhood, includes pregnancy, childbirth, physical recuperation, psychological adjustment, and continues on to nursing, bonding and childrearing.

Now, pregnancy, childbirth and nursing do qualify as biological processes. But slipping childrearing into the list, as if changing diapers and picking up socks were hormonally programmed activities, is an old masculinist trick. Child-raising is a social undertaking, which may involve nannies, aunts, grandparents, daycare workers, or, of course, fathers. 

The July/August 1989 issue of Ms. magazine.

Equally strange for a “feminist” article is Schwartz’s implicit assumption that employment, in the case of married women, is strictly optional, or at least that mothers don’t need to be top-flight earners. The “career-and-family woman,” she tells us, is “willing” and “satisfied” to forgo promotions and “stay at the middle level.”

What about the single mother, or the wife of a low-paid male? But Schwartz’s out-of-date—and class-bound—assumption that every woman is supported by a male breadwinner fits in with her apparent nostalgia for the era of the feminine mystique.

“Ironically,” she writes, “although the feminist movement was an expression of women’s quest for freedom from their home-based lives, most women were remarkably free already [emphasis added].”

But perhaps the oddest thing about the “mommy track” article—even as an “expression of opinion or judgment”—is that it is full of what we might charitably call ambivalence or, more bluntly, self-contraindications. Take the matter of the “glass ceiling,” which symbolized barriers, both subtle and overt, that corporate women keep banging their heads against. At the outset, Schwartz dismisses the glass ceiling as a “misleading metaphor.” Sexism, in short is not the problem. 

Nevertheless, within a few pages, she is describing the glass ceiling (not by that phrase, of course) like a veteran. “Male corporate culture,” she tells us, sees both the career-primary and the career-and-family woman as “unacceptable.” The woman with family responsibilities is likely to be seen as lacking commitment to the organization, while the woman who is fully committed to the organization is likely to be seen as “abrasive and unfeminine.”

She goes on to cite the corporate male’s “confusion, competitiveness,” and his “stereotypical language and sexist …behavior,” concluding that “with notable exceptions, men are still more comfortable with other men.”

And we’re supposed to blame women for their lack of progress in the corporate world?

Schwartz’s out-of-date—and class-bound—assumption that every woman is supported by a male breadwinner fits in with her apparent nostalgia for the era of the feminine mystique.

Even on her premier point, that women are most costly to employ, Schwartz loops around and rebuts herself. Near the end of her article, she urges corporations to conduct their own studies of the costs of employing women—the two anonymous studies were apparently not definitive after all—and asserts confidently (“of course I believe”) that the benefits will end up outweighing the costs. In a more recent New York Times article, she puts it even more baldly: “The costs of employing women pale beside the payoffs.”

Could it be that both Felice Schwartz and the editors of the Harvard Business Review are ignorant of that most basic financial management concept, the cost-benefit analysis? If the “payoffs” outweigh the costs of employing women—runny noses and maternity leaves included—then the net cost may indeed be lower than the cost of employing men.

In sum, the notorious “mommy track” article is a tortured muddle of feminist perceptions and sexist assumptions, good intentions and dangerous suggestions—unsupported by any acceptable evidence at all. It should never have been taken seriously, not by the media and not by the nation’s most prestigious academic business publication. The fact that it was suggests that something serious is afoot: a backlash against America’s high-status better paid women, and potentially against all women workers.

We should have seen it coming. For the past 15 years upwardly mobile, managerial women have done everything possible to fit into an often hostile corporate world. They dressed up as nonthreatening corporate clones. They put in 70-hour workweeks, and of course, they postponed childbearing. Thanks in part to their commitment to the work world, the birthrate dropped by 16 percent since 1970. But now many of these women are ready to start families. This should hardly be surprising; after all, 90 percent of American women do become mothers.

But while corporate women were busily making adjustments and concessions, the larger corporate world was not. The “fast track,” with its macho camaraderie and toxic work load, remains the only track to success. As a result, success is indeed usually incompatible with motherhood—as well as with any engaged and active form of fatherhood. The corporate culture strongly discourages men from taking parental leave even if offered. And how many families can afford to have both earners on the mommy track?

Today there’s an additional factor on the scene: the corporate women who have made it. Many of them are reliable advocates for the supports that working parents need. But you don’t have to hang out with the skirted-suit crowd for long to discover that others of them are impatient with, and sometimes even actively resentful of, younger women who are trying to combine career and family.

Recall that 60 percent of top female executives are themselves childless. Others are of the “if I did it, so can you” school of thought. Felice Schwartz may herself belong in this unsisterly category. In a telling anecdote in her original article, she describes her own problems with an executive employee seeking maternity leave, and the “somewhat awkward conversations” that ensued.

Sooner or later, corporations will have to yield to the pressure for paid parental leave, flextime and childcare, if only because they’ve become dependent on female talent. The danger is that employers—no doubt quoting Felice Schwartz for legitimation—will insist that the price for such options be reduced pay and withheld promotions, i.e. consignment to the mommy track. Such a policy would place a penalty on parenthood, and the ultimate victims—especially if the policy trickles down to the already low-paid female majority—will of course be children. 

Bumping women—or just fertile women, or married women, or whomever—off the fast track may sound smart to cost-conscious CEOs, but eventually it is the corporate culture itself that needs to slow down to a human pace. No one, male or female, works at peak productivity for 70 hours a week, year after year, without sabbaticals or leaves.

Think of it this way: If the price of success were exposure to a toxic chemical, would we argue that only women should be protected? Workloads that are incompatible with family life are themselves a kind of toxin—to men as well as women, and ultimately to businesses as well as families. 

Up next:

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About and

A self-described "myth buster by trade," Barbara Ehrenreich is an award-winning columnist and essayist, author of 21 books, journalist and political activist has been called "a veteran muckraker" by The New Yorker. Ehrenreich is perhaps best known for her 2001 book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America—a memoir of her three-month experiment surviving on minimum wage as a waitress, hotel maid, house cleaner, nursing-home aide and Wal-Mart clerk. She is a recipient of a Lannan Literary Award.
Deirdre English is the former editor of Mother Jones. She has written and edited work on a wide array of subjects related to investigative reporting, cultural politics, gender studies and public policy.