Living: Onward, Women!

The superwoman is weary, the young are complacent, but feminism is not dead. And, baby, there's still a long way to go

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Legislation on both parental leave and child care has been inching through Congress. Hopes for passing some version of the Act for Better Child Care (ABC) before year's end were dashed two weeks ago by political wrangling over how to finance it. A family-leave bill is also stalled. Policymakers in some states are not waiting for Washington to act. Seven states, including Minnesota, Oregon and Rhode Island, have already adopted comprehensive parental-leave laws; ten others have passed maternity-leave bills.

Legislation, while vital, will not in itself revolutionize the workplace. Parental leave after the birth of an infant quickly comes to an end. The best child care in the world is no substitute for a mother or father being there -- at the playground, at the gymnastics competition, at the dinner table. And * being there is getting harder for full-time workers. Since 1973, Americans' average workweek has grown six hours, from under 41 hours to nearly 47, according to a Harris survey. Earlier this year Felice Schwartz, president of Catalyst, a research and advisory group that focuses on women in business, proposed a now infamous solution. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, she proposed that professional women who prefer not to sacrifice family to ambition be relegated to a slower career path that would top out at middle management. They would get by with shorter hours and schedules flexible enough to permit the occasional trip to the pediatrician or school play.

Schwartz's "Mommy Track" idea unleashed a torrent of condemnation. Critics asked why women, and for that matter men, could not make a temporary switch to a slower track. Why couldn't workers slow down and speed up depending on the changing demands of their personal lives? Author Sylvia Ann Hewlett foresees a "sequencing" pattern in which dual-career couples would alternate the times in which they focus heavily on their work. A mother or father might be intensely involved in a project for a period of time and thereby earn credits for time off to spend with the family during a slower period. To make such a scenario possible, Hewlett points out, the wage gap would have to close. Otherwise the woman's career, being less lucrative, would always seem the more expendable of the two.

Today many major law firms have a slower Mommy Track, but women who choose to switch to such "part-time" positions (as many as 40 hours a week instead of 70) generally do not have the option of picking up speed again; they are out of the race for partnership. Other fields are even less accommodating. "In academic science, the granting situation is so tight that even if you are very creative, if you divert your energy to a child, it will be extremely difficult to compete," says Lola Reid, a research biologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. Reid, who has a one-year-old daughter, advocates a separate pool of grant money for scientists who are in their peak years of child rearing. Otherwise, she says, "we're going to lose a highly trained population; they will simply drop out of the field."

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