Working Mothers Flex Their Scheduling Muscle

After Years of Struggle, Employers Hone Ways for Valued Workers to fit in

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sthompson@crain.com

For many female media and marketing executives, the climb to the top of the corporate ladder is one littered with toys and teething rings and time spent helping with homework.

When Gail Nichols went part time as a brand manager for Kraft Foods in 1986 to spend time with her then-one-year-old son, she was one of the first four managers Kraft approved to do so.

Fast forward 20 years, and Ms. Nichols, now a full-time senior brand manager ever since her younger son went to college, has tried every part-time permutation from two days a week to four short days to four full days, and along the way she has been joined by hundreds of Kraft marketers working flexible schedules to spend more time being moms.

But still there are bumps on the flex-schedule road. One media-agency executive noted she has seen at least two disgruntled part-timers leave because their companies didn't structure the job so it could be done in fewer hours, basically offering half-time pay for a full-time job.

And, of course, when the ax falls, often flex schedules are among the first hit. An executive close to Kraft said that during a recent restructuring, some part-timers were asked to go full time or be shown the door, and most of them chose to leave.

SET OF OPTIONS

Most though "these flexible work programs are specifically designed to keep people happy and productive ... and you see more and more people in this country moving toward them," said Carol Evans, CEO-founder of Working Mother Media. According to an annual survey Working Mother commissions from the Society of Human Resource Management, 57% of companies offer flex time (a number that jumps to 99% for top-100 family-friendly companies), 26% offer telecommuting (vs. 99% the of top 100) and 35% offer a compressed work week (vs. 96% of the top 100.)

Ms. Evans said those numbers have improved every year and, she believes, will continue to grow as companies face the retirement of baby boomers and recognize the need to pull out all the stops to prevent talented working moms from fleeing the work force. "Women vote with their feet if they're unhappy," she said.

Executives have been taking advantage of the trend. But managing the vagaries of the fast-paced marketing world means executives with flexible schedules often have to bend. Natalie Conway, VP-media director at Starcom, for example, kicks her three-day-a-week schedule into a full five-day workweek once the upfront starts.

For the two-plus years since her son was born, Ms. Conway cedes her part-time career for a full-time one in May and June during the heart of media-buying season. Ms. Conway's mother takes care of her son, which makes things easier. (She says her mom's mortgage at a nearby condo is paid in lieu of nanny fees.) A 15-year veteran of Starcom, Ms. Conway noted that the media conglomerate is "pretty open about hearing anyone's [flexible work] plan," having recognized for years that media is a heavily female industry and that "they need to be creative to have all employees feeling empowered and happy."

Catherine Fox, marketing manager for bakery/foodservice at General Mills, started a part-time forum four years ago after she had already been working part time for four years.

Among other things, the forum has been able to change benefit compensation to a sliding scale vs. the prior policy which gave half benefits even to employees who worked more than half-time hours and has helped grow part-time opportunities for salaried employees. At least a half-dozen marketing managers at General Mills are part time, she said.

Aside from having to be hyper-organized about what's happening on the days you won't be in the office, one of the biggest changes with part-time work, Ms. Fox said, is the lack of socializing with other employees. "It's all business," she said. Even her bosses get the what-for if they try to keep her past 5:15 on the days she is in the office. "I tell them, 'You've got two minutes.' "

WON OVER BOSS

Of course, for employees to be able to set those parameters, they must prove their performance won't suffer. When Beth Feldman, VP of CBS' Communications Group asked to telecommute two days a week after she returned from maternity leave in 1999, her boss agreed to give her a six-week tryout.

Seven years later, he is more than confident Ms. Feldman can get the job done just as effectively from home and has granted others in the department similar opportunities. Bosses (at least hers) are more mindful of family commitments, said the co-founder of RoleMommy.com. (See box.)

And sometimes, of course, going part time means slowing down the fast track. Ms. Nichols, full time again, hopes to move beyond the senior brand manager title she has held for a decade. "It's been a trade-off," she said, but one she wouldn't change for the world.



Working Moms Need Blogs Too As if holding down one high-profile part-time job at CBS and being a mom wasn't enough, Beth Feldman spends off hours on RoleMommy.com, the website she co-founded with "Extra" producer Yvette Corporon. The two have co-authored a book due out this March from NK Publications called "Peeing in Peace: Tales & Tips for Type A Moms."

How do women contribute to RoleMommy?

Role Mommy includes a variety of blogs, including MomsofReinvention.blogspot.com, which profiles mothers who have reinvented their careers not by quitting but by putting together a plan that makes sense for them and their employers.

How has the struggle to balance jobs and family changed?

It's still a tough balance, but technology has allowed more women to leave the office at a reasonable hour and create telecommuting arrangements.
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