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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, September 9, 2006

Mommy Track 2.0: Career moms find new ways to make it work

By Molly Selvin
Los Angeles Times

Attorney Becky Belke works at a Los Angeles law firm where colleagues regularly toil nights and weekends. But as a mother of three children younger than 5, she wants to work only three days a week even if it means she can't become a partner soon.

No problem.

Not only has Belke's firm, Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, agreed to her part-time schedule, it will put her on its partnership track if she wants to boost her hours when her kids are older.

"I know if I were home with my kids every day I'd be insane, and if I were here every day I would not be happy," the 39-year-old said of her part-time schedule. "It's a good situation for me."

Welcome to Mommy Track 2.0.

The old Mommy Track was a path where up-and-coming women found that having children effectively disqualified them for top positions. They either took themselves out of the running, settling for lower-level positions with more predictable hours and less responsibility, or their male bosses assumed that because these women had children, they wouldn't or couldn't give their all to the office.

Now, some employers in high-pressure professions such as law, medicine, accounting and finance which years ago may have fired women who became pregnant are giving working mothers what they want: a shot at the top jobs but with flexible hours, part-time schedules or other concessions to their caregiving responsibilities.

They are increasingly willing to change the criteria for young mothers to reach top positions, giving them more time or the ability to leave for several years of child-raising and come back. Breast-feeding lounges, support groups, mentors and sabbaticals have become more commonplace for working mothers seeking to break the glass ceiling.

Years ago, the attitude of male executives was, "OK, let them compete in exactly the same way that men do," said Myra Strober, a Stanford University labor economist. "What's really changed is the appreciation that some sort of accommodation is required."

"So what if it takes 15 years to get 10 publications instead of seven years?" said Janet Bickel, a Virginia-based executive career consultant, arguing for more flexibility in tenure or partnership tracks for younger working mothers.

By showing that leaving a successful career to care for children did not prevent her from returning to a top job in corporate America, Brenda Barnes can be seen as a Mommy Track 2.0 pioneer.

Among the first mothers to reach the executive suite a decade ago, when PepsiCo Inc. tapped her to lead its Pepsi-Cola North America division, Barnes' decision in 1997 to step down to spend more time with her three school-age children generated headlines and considerable angst in the business community.

"I'm not leaving because they need more of me," she said of her children at the time, "but because I need more of them."

Like many women, Barnes depended on full-time childcare and little sleep to make the PepsiCo job work. She said then that she routinely rose at 3:30 a.m. to work a few hours before the nanny arrived. Breakfast with her children was a priority, and she tried to leave the office by 7 p.m. to be with them in the evening.

For many mothers, that full-throttle pace leaves too little time to enjoy their children. Ultimately Barnes came to feel the same way at least for a while.

After a year off, Barnes who declined to be interviewed for this story returned to the executive suite, this time as interim president of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. In July 2004 her children teenagers by then she was named president of food company Sara Lee Corp. and now is its chief executive.