Where Did Mommytracking Come From?

7 years ago

Today I saw a horrific billboard from Microsoft’s Hotmail. The ad campaign is titled, “The New Busy.” The tagline was, “The new busy think 9-5 is a cute idea.”

I read into the Microsoft message that really busy -- e.g. successful and in demand -- people work way longer than 9-5. If you live in a culture where working long hours is the sole measure of success and ambition, then how can parents really ever succeed and see their kids? 

Ironically, Felice Schwartz, who originated the idea of the mommytrack in her 1989 Harvard Business Review article, meant to give women a way out of long hours when she suggested employers create alternative work arrangements for parents who wanted more time with their kids. Schwartz founded the group Catalyst in 1962 and was one of the first women to speak up for women’s right to be successful at work. 

But few concepts are as divisive as “mommytracking,” which is the creation of an alternative career path for women who are mothers with caregiving responsibilities. In raising the debate that women might want something different, I think Schwartz also created a stereotype that we do want something different. Or, if we do want something different, it's because we're mothers, and not because we're normal human beings who might want a life outside work.

New Busy

Sometimes when I have to skip a meeting because of a childcare snafu I run the risk of being stereotyped as mommytracked. I feel as though I shouldn't be honest about the reason I can't make the meeting. This is the legacy of "mommytracking."

In an interview with the Boston Globe in 1992, Felice Schwartz said, "'I violated the politically correct thing by saying that women are not just like men ... What I said then and still say is that women face many, many obstacles in the workplace that men do not face. I was saying to that group of men at the top, 'Rather than let women's talents go to waste, do something about it.' "

In the HBR article Schwartz wrote, “The cost of employing women in management is greater than the cost of employing men." If employers wanted to stop losing women and wasting the money they’d invested in women, they needed to create policies and practices that accommodated parents (meaning women). As Meredith O’Brien writes on Mommytrack’d.com, Schwartz “suggested that employees could be put themselves into two groups: One in which the focus is on career above all, and the second in which the focus is on combining career AND family.” Schwartz didn’t coin the term: the New York Times did, in a follow up piece.

I didn’t know the backstory behind mommytracking. I thought it was slang that just emerged in the culture. But Schwartz was very serious, and she had great weight because she spoke directly to major corporations. And they listened.

Fran Rodgers is the founder of WFD, which invented the resource and referral programs that thousands of employees rely on to find child care, elder care, counseling, and other work-life services. She also worked with major companies to create family-friendly work policies that did not require women to sacrifice ambition. Fran is not a fan of Schwartz’s thesis. Rodgers says, “My whole point was that people should be judged on results - your status as a mother or not should not affect anything. If you want to be ambitious, you can be. Judge by results and don't assume a mom will do less. That's not fair.”

Schwartz, Fran said, “made the assumption that every woman who is a mother wants to be on a slower track. She presented a two-track system. Be on the slow track, or never see your children. But if you were more productive in three days a week than a non-mother was in five days, why should you be punished”? 

I mentioned to Fran that Schwartz’s proposal was very binary -- she agreed. But mostly, it was “a total slap in the face. She assumed business wouldn't adjust to fit different women's ambitions.”

To come back to my personal worries, Fran insists, “It's not mommytracking if you make the decision to tread water or cut back -- it's mommytracking if they make the decision for you.” I’m not so sure. In our always-on work culture, if you’re not always-on, people make assumptions about you. I don’t know if that leads to decisions about your ambition or suitability for leadership, but I bet it does.


a caucasian mother sits at her home office on the phone with her young daughter behind her

The good news is that companies have changed, and (white collar and professional) parents are usually given more room to attend to personal matters during the workday. Fewer moms work part-time than 20 years ago, and there are more of us around - being visibly successful, ambitious working mothers. The rise in women entrepreneurs, myself included, is in no small part a rejection of the notion that we must be tracked at all. But the fact that most of us are expected to work ever more extreme hours means “being on the mommytrack” has also become shorthand for (primarily) women with children who don’t want to work extreme hours. Never mind that most moms I know are online so much they’re putting in extreme hours of computer time anyway. With management responsibility, it seems, comes never a break from work. And that’s quite a sacrifice.

What does mommytracking mean to you? 

Morra Aarons-Mele
www.womenandwork.org

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