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Published on Mommy Tracked (http://www.mommytracked.com)

Mommy Track: Origin of the Phrase.

Eighteen years ago, a self-described feminist and president of a non-profit group which advocated for women in corporate America, wrote a piece for the Harvard Business Review that would turn her world upside-down. In her article Felice N. Schwartz told elite business readers that if they wanted to stop losing talented and bright female employees in whom they'd invested time and money, they needed to start creating a more family-friendly workplace, one which provided mothers (and fathers) with options. She 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.

Radical, huh? Proposing that employees deliberately make choices, seeking to strike either a work-life balance or a career-centric path? Urging employers to provide parents with the opportunity to temporarily scale back their work responsibilities when their children are small? In 1989, it was. And even though the phrase "mommy track" -- and, to a degree, the lesser-used "daddy track" - is used frequently now as more companies are expanding their flex-time and telecommuting options, the idea of a parent track is still controversial. Not much seems to have changed on that front.

But when Schwartz offered what she saw as pragmatic proposals to American business leaders, she unwittingly created a social maelstrom.

Weeks after Schwartz's article made its way through the business world, the New York Times [1] not only ran an article about it, but coined a new phrase: The mommy track. (Schwartz herself didn't use the phrase in her piece.)  Critics [2] -- jumping on the media's characterization of Schwartz's article -- labeled Schwartz an anti-feminist, attacked her for suggesting that women be put into categories and not men, suggested she was advocating sex discrimination in hiring, and chastised her for saying that it costs more money to hire women (when in fact Schwartz said the costs of hiring women were higher because of high turnover when mothers left because work conditions were inflexible).

Syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman [3] described the ensuing controversy in a March 1989 column: "Depending on your point of view, the mommy track is either: (1) A dream job that allows women the flexibility to do work they enjoy while still having time for school plays and deep breathing. (2) A ghettoized second-class job that fits what the employment pages call Mother's Hours."

That same month, Schwartz tried to defend herself, telling the Boston Globe, "I don't believe in a mommy track or a daddy track. But I think there should be a serious alternative for men as well as women who want to take time out or to stay at lower levels."

Ten years later, Schwartz's son Tony revisited the furor over his mother's article, noting that Schwartz took her own mommy track detour when her three children were young and returned to paid employment when her youngest was in kindergarten. In his essay for Fast Company [4] he said that the 500+ articles written about the hullabaloo really didn't come close to understanding what his mother meant or what she stood for:

"It's an illusion, she said, to think that you can have it all. If what you want is to focus on your career and compete for the top, then you're going to have to spend less time with your children - a trade-off that many men have been making for decades, and not always happily. Conversely, if you want to make raising your children the highest priority, then you're going to have to accept some impact on your career, at least temporarily."

Nowadays, when you look up the phrase "mommy track," you're just as likely to find some feminists (such as writer Linda Hirshman [5]) criticizing women for consciously, albeit temporarily, adjusting their careers for their families. But you're also just likely to read about a growing backlash against those who take a parent track (flex-time, reduced schedules, telecommuting, etc.). The Harvard Business Review, where this whole concept began, ran a case study in March 2001, profiling a manager who was dealing with employees who thought that parents were gaming the system and benefited from "special" privileges over non-parents . . . conveniently forgetting, of course, that the flex-time parents often sacrifice pay, prestige and career advancement in exchange for the ability to be with their families more frequently.

It has been close to 20 years since the phrase "mommy track" landed into the American lexicon like a grenade. But in all these years, the notion of women changing their career tracks for their families remains a hot button issue, while the notion of men cutting back on their working hours for their families is also far from the norm. And Felice Schwartz, who took a temporary off-ramp in her own career, would likely continue to be surprised by the debate that's not yet reached an end.

Read about taking back the phrase "Mommy Track" in "What does Mommy Tracked Mean to You?" [5]


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