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Lauren E. Bohn/Medill

"The firm's attitude is 'We will work around you,''' said Lisa Weier, 36, a senior associate in the Chapman and Cutler corporate and securities department and mother of two young boys.

Gains for working mothers, but 'the treadmill never stops'

by Lauren E. Bohn
Oct 29, 2009


Lauren E. Bohn/ MEDILL

Weier said she doesn't feel penalized for working part-time and is able to take part in her sons' lives.

The battle of the sexes is over, declared a report by Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress.

Postpone the celebration, though. Now, it says, the battle is about negotiations between the sexes.

The annual Women's Conference held this week in Los Angeles highlighted the recently released Shriver Report. For the first time in America’s history, one-half of all U.S. workers are women. But according to the report, the government and the workplace are behind the times when it comes to responding to the needs of working mothers.

Joanne Brundage, founder and executive director of Mothers & More in Elmhurst, laughs when such battles are thought to have been won or reconciled.

“At the end of the day, public policy doesn’t accommodate working mothers," she said. "It's the elephant in the room: Society is based on supporting traditional families, where the husband works and the wife stays home with the children.”

Though mothers are the primary breadwinners or co-breadwinners in two-thirds of American families, by other measures, progress is elusive: the United States slipped to No. 31 in the World Economic Forum’s “The Global Gender Gap Report” released earlier this week. And only 15 women run Fortune 500 companies.

Of the 33 Fortune 500 companies in Illinois, only two have received nods from Working Mother magazine’s 2009 top 100 places for females to work: Abbott Laboratories and Allstate Insurance Company.

“It’s about the convenience,” said Allstate director and senior actuary Shantelle Thomas, pointing to Allstate’s on-site facilities like stores and day-care services. She was named one of the magazine’s Top 30 Working Mothers of 2009.

“It seems silly, but something as simple as having a store downstairs where you can buy a birthday card makes things so much easier,” she said.

But while mothers are now deemed co-breadwinners in most families, a Pew Research Center study released earlier this month revealed that 62 percent of working mothers prefer to work part-time. And only 13 percent of moms who work full-time say having a mother who works full-time is the ideal situation for a young child.

Debra Condren, author of “Ambition is Not a Dirty Word: A Woman's Guide to Earning her Worth and Achieving Her Dreams," said women are socialized to do the heavy lifting when it comes to family care. 

“The treadmill never stops," she said.

If women aren't able to maintain the harried pace, corporate America stands to lose the most, said Cathy L. Greenberg, a consultant for Fortune 500 executives.

“Companies are going to be hard pressed to gain in-roads and innovate if they don’t increase intellectual capacity and let mothers work part-time,” she predicts.

David Lewin, professor of management, human resources, and organizational behavior at UCLA, echoes this forecast.

Though the dismal economic climate has furthered the workforce shift toward women, he maintains the increase in women’s proportion of the workforce will continue. Companies who fail to adapt to the needs of modern families will lose talent.

Law firms like Chicago’s Chapman and Cutler, named by Working Mother for being one of the best law firms for women, recognize this.

In the past four years, the firm promoted 33 percent of their female lawyers to equity partners. This is placed in an incongruent context: According to the American Bar Association, women in 2008 made up almost half of all associates, but only 18.3 percent of partners.

Lisa Weier is a lawyer at the firm on an “alternative work schedule." Her part-time work enables her, she said, to take part in events like her son’s first day of kindergarten.

“Firms now realize they have to provide more options for working mothers, not just one track,” she said.  “After all, there are 100 different ways to do something.”

Still, Brundage is quick to remind, the battle isn’t over.

“Do we still have a long way to go?” Brundage asked with a laugh that belied a certain unease. “By and large, yes.”