Flexibility keeps moms on the job

 
 

By Amanda Beeler

Photo by Frank Pinc

Alena Murguia and her son Connor Uphues of Berwyn.

Before she became a mother in October 2001, Kristyn Terpinas expected to take four months of leave and return part-time to her job as a marketing manager for United Airlines. Thanks to her in-laws, she even had free childcare available.

But Terpinas, 35, never took advantage of the free babysitting. After trying unsuccessfully to negotiate a part-time schedule at the troubled airline, she chose to stay home with her daughter, now 1.

"I really enjoy being home with her," Terpinas says. "Now that I’ve been home I couldn’t imagine going back."

She isn’t alone.

Whether they choose to leave the workforce to be with their infants, are unable to negotiate a flexible work schedule, or are unemployed, more women are staying home after their babies are born.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 50.6 percent of women with children under 1 were working in 2001 compared to 53.6 percent in 1988. And in 2001 the unemployment rate for mothers with children under 1 rose to 7.7 percent compared with 6.6 percent in 2000. 

While more women return to work as their children get older, the number of households with one parent at home continues to inch up. In 2001, about 42 percent of families with children under 6 included one married parent who did not work. In more than 91 percent of those households, the mother was the parent who stayed home.

"Barring crises, what women first think they will do and what they end up doing are different," says Joanne Brundage, an Elmhurst mother of three who 15 years ago started Mothers and More, a national organization for mothers. "We see a lot of women not going back as soon or as full force as they thought they would."

Options narrow

The sluggish economy has often made it difficult for new mothers to find a balance between working and spending time raising their children. Terpinas, for example, is sure she would be a working mother if Sept. 11 had never happened. But when Middle Eastern terrorists flew the commercial jets into the World Trade Centers, it rocked the country and the airline industry. United started laying off workers even before Terpinas began her maternity leave. When she told her boss she would like to return to work on a three-day-a-week schedule, the best he could offer was a 40-hour week compressed into four days. "It was a very, very hard decision," Terpinas says. "My husband and I did not want me to work four days a week. And because of the stress of my job and the stress of a scaled back department, everyone had more on their plate, so it was not a 9-to-5 job. Realistically, I knew I’d be working five days a week. "I had free child care, travel benefits, a job that I absolutely loved. It kind of tells you how much I wanted to be a mom, too." Rachel Gross didn’t have to decide whether to return to her job as a senior business analyst at Expedior after having her first child in December 2000. Her name appeared on the Internet consulting firm’s layoff list the same day her maternity leave began. Though she had expected to return to work, Gross, 33, was not upset that she had no job to return to when her disability and severance pay expired. "I was relieved that I didn’t have a decision to make at three months," she says. "I truly enjoyed my time at home." But instead of telling people she was spending time with her son, now 2, Gross found herself saying she’d been laid-off. "I wasn’t wishing I were at work and I didn’t know if and when it would hit me, but I wasn’t comfortable saying I was a stay-at-home mom," she says. Her first job opportunity, which allowed her to work from home, came when her son was 8 months old. It was a good way to ease back into the working world. Though she had always thought she wouldn’t like working at home and would crave the social environment of the office, Gross was surprised at how easy it was. "The motivation at home was the billable hours," she says. "I was very conscious of what work I was billing. I had a nanny 2½ days a week and could do other work during naps and at night." Now expecting her second child, Gross feels as though she has found a good balance between being home and working. She is officially self-employed, has registered as a minority-owned business in Cook County, makes more per hour than she did at the now defunct Expedior, and uses her husband’s insurance benefits. Gross recognizes that she is lucky to be able to have the option not to work full-time. "So many people don’t have that choice," she says. "I don’t feel that I’m any more committed than working mothers, it’s just that I’ve had the option to choose." Employers of choice

 Though many companies curtailed part-time and flexible schedules when the economy turned sour, the corporate trend still is to offer employees flexible job options. "I think it has been trending towards more flexibility regardless of, or in spite of, the economy," says Mary Lynn Fayoumi, president and CEO of The Management Association of Illinois. "Some organizations have found they are able to maintain more of their good employees, but on a compressed schedule. Ruth Henry, assistant vice president-work-life consultant at Chicago’s Bank One Corp., has noticed an increase in interest and requests for flexible work schedules. "Often employees wanting to help care for children or aging parents think that the best solution is to go part-time but the financial reality is that they can’t," Henry says. "Having a different type of arrangement often works." Offering a variety of flexible work options and services for parents can help companies become what Fayoumi calls an "employer of choice." Companies want to be recognized as a place where people want to work. "There’s no real formula for being an employer of choice, but one of the essential elements is always work-life balance and realizing that people have a life outside of work," Fayoumi says. "It’s a hot topic and critical to small and large employers in spite of the bad economy." But it takes more than having flexible programs in the employee manual. "Unfortunately flexible working schedules are only as good as the particular office or manager you work for," Brundage says. "I have heard some employees rave endlessly and others say it isn’t happening." Since Miles White took over in 1999 as Abbott Laboratories’ chief executive officer, the number of employees with flexible schedules has spiked. Sharon Larkin, divisional vice president of human resources, estimates 40 percent of Abbott employees work a flexible schedule, up from just 25 to 27 percent two years ago. Larkin credits the increase to White. He asked employees what they need from a supportive employer. They requested more child care options and more flexible work schedules. Like Bank One, Abbott was recently listed in Working Mother magazine’s list of 100 best companies for working mothers. Abbott offers on-site childcare and helps employees and managers interested in working out flexible schedules. "To attract and retain the talent, we have to offer programs for flexibility," says Larkin, a full-time employee with two sons, ages 7 and 9. "We don’t turn off our personal lives when we walk in the door. Employees need the flexibility to handle personal demands." Larkin takes advantage of many of the company’s perks, including on-site dry cleaning, take-home cafeteria dinners and birthday cakes and special programs for  employees’ school-age children on those odd days off school. "The boys love it and they get to do wonderful things," she says of the holiday program. Though she works full-time, Larkin tries to be flexible to attend important events and be at home. "In the evening I try to get out by 6 or 6:30 p.m. for homework, dinner, baths and bed," Larkin says. "And then the day continues. I check e-mail and voice mail from home." Arthur Anderson accountant Erica O’Malley began mapping out a flexible work schedule when she decided to specialize in auditing 401(k) and employee benefit plans. "It’s deadline driven and works very well for a working parent," says O’Malley, now the mother of five. "You know when you’re going to be busy. I recognized this in my second year at Anderson and thought it would be great if I could work part-time some day." Co-workers were surprised that O’Malley wanted to focus on benefit plan auditing. But she and 13 colleagues managed to run a specialized business and work part-time in a field known for ridiculously long days. "We targeted women we thought would leave after they had kids because we knew it would be hard to handle the stressful work arrangement," O’Malley says. "Almost all of the people who were in the group would have left had they not been hired." When her employer, Arthur Anderson, was indicted last March in connection with the Enron fraud scandal, O’Malley, 38, had just returned from leave after the birth of her fifth child. Recognizing that her job was in jeopardy, O’Malley, began looking for other accounting firms that might hire her group. Her goal was to keep the 14-person group intact and keep their flexible schedules. The top three corporate clients also agreed to follow the group to a new firm. Ten members of the original group ended up at Grant Thornton, which had wanted to develop a benefit plan auditing practice.  The firm had few employees with flexible schedules and was eager to hire a group of part-time people. "They said, ‘Tell us what to do about flex time’," O’Malley says. "Six months later I think they look at us and say, ‘Wow, that’s how you do it!" As of January, O’Malley’s group had 19 children among them and O’Malley is now a partner, despite giving up the promotion track when she began working her reduced schedule 10 years ago. "The first partner I worked with wouldn’t even talk to me because I was a woman and part time. He would only talk to the manager next to me," she says. "But I was changing attitudes. I proved to him over time [that I could do the job]. He just couldn’t fathom not working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and when I left he was a huge proponent [of flex time]." The two days a week O’Malley is at home, she keeps work to a minimum, taking the occasional 30-minute phone call or checking e-mail.  "I have five kids and I can hardly work at home now," says O’Malley, whose children range in age from 1 to 10. "We pack our days full of what fun we’re going to have and do our errands." But workdays are long. "Now that I’m a partner, I feel a little more pressure and put in 10-hour days," she says. "It’s hard to call it part-time. It’s a flexible job. It’s all about how you handle time and how you spend time with the kids. When I’m here, I work. When I’m done, I go."

Changing expectations

 When Brundage looks back at Mothers and More over the past 15 years, she sees a difference between today’s 7,500 members and the group’s pioneers: Younger mothers today don’t have the same fear of returning to work after having children. "There’s more confidence about being able to move in and out of the working world," says Brundage, the group’s executive director. "Our original name was ‘Formerly Employed Mothers at Loose Ends’ because then you were formerly employed. That’s what everyone assumed. You were done. Now, thankfully, the whole concept of sequencing has begun to take on. It’s the idea that you can move in and out." But new mothers are sometimes more frustrated by the challenge to be taken seriously in the workplace after becoming a parent.

"The way that people are expected to parent has changed," Brundage says. "That’s the rock and the hard place that mothers find themselves in. The expectations on the work and home side have increased."

Secrets to winning the flex-time game Do you dream of returning to work with a schedule that lets you see your baby when he is awake? Searching for a balance between making money and reading "Pat the Bunny"? Here are some things you should know and do before you head to the boss’ office to request a flexible work schedule: Soul Search "More self-examination is probably the best thing you can do before you can go back out there," says Joanne Brundage, executive director of Mothers and More. "Ask: What do I really want? What do I really need? You can’t let the external environment tell you what you’re going to do. You have to feel centered and focused and self-confident." Know your worth "You have to understand what you contribute and the value you bring (to the company)," says Sharon Larkin, a vice president at Abbott Laboratories and the mother of two boys. "Discuss your plans with your manager with that as your foundation." Do Your homework Research your company’s policies regarding flexible work schedules and tap into work-life resources. Many companies have departments devoted to work-life issues with people who can help map out proposals and find solutions to potential hurdles. When developing your proposal, include success stories of other employees in similar work situations. Know the barriers Think of the potential problems a manager might have with your request before you’re sitting across from her. "One of the biggest challenges for managers is how to integrate varying schedules to meet individual needs and still meet business objectives," Larkin says. She suggests having solutions or recommendations for overcoming the possible hurdles before you start your discussion. Be realistic "You cannot walk in cold to an area where you have no experience and expect the moon and the stars," Brundage says. "The people who get the work most often have a great deal of experience in the field or with the employer." Know the lingo Compressed work week:Putting in a full week’s work in four days with the fifth day off. Telecommuting: Working from home via phone and computer. Job share: One full-time job split between two part-time people. Time share: Two different part-time jobs for two people, equating to one full-time employee. Flex time: Changing the starting and ending time of the workday or working just a few days a week. Be flexible Offer a trial period to prove your plan can work and be willing to try a variation of your proposal. "One thing that is really important with flexibility is it’s flexible on both sides—not only for the manager but also for the employee," says Ruth Henry, an assistant vice president at Bank One Corp. "Typically, an employee will do anything to make the arrangement work." Be above avarage "You need to sell yourself and be an above-average performer," says Erica O’Malley, a partner at Grant Thornton and the mother of five. "If you can’t do it full-time, you can’t do it part-time." Assure managers that there will be no loss in productivity. Most employers find that employees who job share or work a reduced schedule put in many more work hours than required. "They end up doing whatever it takes to get the job done," Larkin says. "In return for this flexible schedule, people are committed." Find a mentor Before heading back to the office, find a fellow parent who already is working an alternative schedule. Find out all there is to know about making a part-time or flex schedule successful. Once you are working again, don’t forget to go to your mentor when the baby sitter’s car breaks down or the children are sick. "It’s hard not to quit unless you have a mentor," says O’Malley. "And you have to go to them when things come up. Supportive people help you think how to work through your problems."

Amanda Beeler, mother of a 15-month-old girl, is a formerly employed newspaper reporter who now balances work and family by freelancing from her Chicago home.

 

 
 





 
 
 
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