Fast-Track Mommy Manual

From the Chronicle of Higher Education daily update, I learned about a forthcoming book, Mothers on the Fast Track: How a New Generation Can Balance Family and Careers:

In the new book, Ms. Mason and Ms. Ekman say it is common for women who start off in fast-track jobs in law, medicine, academe, and business to slip into the “second tier” once they have children.
Those jobs, they write, have fewer and more flexible hours, but do not pay as well and offer less responsibility. It is often difficult for women who slip into the second tier to make it back into the upper echelons of an organization.
Women who want to remain on the fast track after becoming mothers should stay in the game, taking off as little time as possible, says the new book. Those women also need supportive partners, in-home child care, and an ability to work on what the authors call “mother time.”
That means women must say no to evening meetings and lots of business travel, so they can have dinner with their children or attend the kids’ sporting events. But it also means going back to work after the kids are in bed.

My first reaction when I read this was not uplifting. It sounded like the authors were just saying, “things are bad, so women have to suck it up and work extra hard if they want to get ahead.”
But when I read the publisher’s description at Amazon, and the excerpt at the website of one of the authors, I got a somewhat different impression. From the excerpt:

These two trends – women entering graduate and professional schools in record numbers but fewer reaching the top of their professions raise important questions. What happens between school and the boardroom that causes large numbers of women to drop off of this fast track? When does the leak from the pipeline occur? And what solutions will stem the tide? Can mothers remain on the fast track? And if so, what is the secret to their success?
This book will address these questions through our research on careers and family over the lifecourse. Importantly, it will both frame the issues and offer solutions. The qualitative component of our research – interviews with dozens of women pursuing, or sidetracked from, fast track careers – tells the story of how these issues play out in women’s lives. Through both their advice and our research we will offer personal and institutional strategies for helping women succeed as professionals, wives and parents.

The key phrase here is “institutional strategies”. If you read only the Chronicle piece, you would think this book maintained a focus on how individual women should handle a private problem of their own making. When you actually get to the book, you see that it recognizes institutional and structural barriers and societal factors that affect mothers, but not fathers. The authors promise to describe possibilities for institutional transformation that have proven successful, even as they share strategies for coping with the present configuration of barriers women face.
Things are bad for women and if you look at the figures included in the excerpt you surely won’t feel any more cheerful. It will be great if this book helps individual women survive their daily struggles, and provides useful information for all those who wish to change the environment so that women need not struggle quite so hard, as it looks like it will.
You can see a Chronicle report of some of their earlier work, the Do Babies Matter? project, here. There are links to other research and downloadable pdfs off Mary Ann Mason’s website.

  1. antijen
    June 1, 2007 at 1:56 am

    Thanks for pointing this out – it looks fascinating. It’s so refreshing to see discussion of the institutional factors, not just the personal ones.

  2. June 1, 2007 at 11:57 am

    Mason is my hero. I’ve used her evidence a lot over the years to interrupt sexist conversations.

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