by Anne Tergesen
A new study by the Pew Research Center shows that some 60% of working mothers want to work part-time. That’s up from 48% in 1997. I understand where these moms are coming from. For the past seven years, I’ve worked three days a week.
I am grateful for my part-time schedule. Without it, I don’t think I could do it all—at least not without feeling horribly guilty about the time away from my kids. But part-time is not a panacea. Like many part-timers, I routinely put in extra hours at night and on weekends. At times, the only thing part-time about my status is my pay check. Happily for me, my work remains interesting. But for many, part-time leads to second-class status.
To get a perspective on why so many working moms want to work part-time and—more importantly—how to make it work, I spoke with Pamela Stone , a sociology professor at Hunter College and author of “Opting Out: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home .” In the words of "Salon" magazine, the book describes “the complex reasons that 54 women left their high-powered positions after having children.”
Q: Why do working moms want part-time schedules?
A: Women still tend to be more responsible for childrearing. There’s a big gender gap (on the home front). Much more so than men, women are caught in this double bind of rising pressures on the home front and rising pressures on the work front.
Q: Why is pressure rising at home?
A: I saw this very much with the women I studied. They repeatedly commented on how different mothering is today compared with when they were growing up. Today, being a successful mother means more organized activities, more oversight of the children, and greater pressure when it comes to education. Kids are taking high stakes tests in the fourth grade now.
Q: Did the women you studied find part-time work a successful solution?
A: The women I studied are very skilled mid-career workers. All were on top of the game and knew how to do their jobs part-time. But they felt there were a lot of shortcomings to part-time. The number one shortcoming is that the hours started creeping up. They also found the meaningful responsibilities of their jobs were taken away from them. All of these things started undermining their work commitment and they felt disengaged from their careers. They also felt stigmatized in the workplace. One woman said to me, “I work 30 hours a week, but everyone else is working 50 or 60.” She didn’t want to let down the team.
Q: How can we make part-time a viable solution?
A: A majority of the women I spoke to were trying hard to make part-time work. But they came up against the fact that professional work cultures haven’t evolved to point where there’s anything but the fill-time, full-tilt model.
One problem with part-time is that it’s too often identified as a woman’s option and regrettably—with the way the world works—it’s too often a devalued option. We as professionals have to think outside the box and permit ourselves to work differently and to be empowered to advocate for change. What has to happen is a cultural change from very top. So many of these part-time arrangements are individually brokered and turnover of the manager who approved them can undermine them. We have to think about how to institutionalize these arrangements and how to create a culture that doesn’t penalize workers who take advantage of them. Managers have to trust employees to do their jobs. They have to be task and goal oriented, and not base rewards on face time.
Anne Tergesen, an associate editor for Business Week, writes about personal finance and investing. She joined the magazine in 1998, when her oldest child was seven months old. Prior to Business Week, she was a fellow in the Knight-Bagehot program for mid-career journalists at Columbia University and worked as a reporter at The Record in Hackensack, N.J. and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Anne is based in New York, where she lives with her husband and their three boys, ages 7, 5, and 3. During her career at BusinessWeek, Anne has worked both full-time and part-time.