Impressions mattered the morning Demetra Lambros raced to meet one of her law firm's newest clients. She put on mascara and rehearsed her presentation in the cab on the way to a stately Washington office. She gave a firm handshake to all the men present, set her briefcase squarely on the table, opened the client's file and watched blankly as a pacifier came flying out.
"Oops," said Ms. Lambros, fast-track lawyer three days a week ** and full-time mom the other four.
For professional women, the conflict between work and family dates at least from the emergence of feminism. But economic circumstances are finally beginning to imbue some women with the power to manage the conflict to their advantage. Perhaps for the first time since women broke into the corporate club, they are using their leverage to demand jobs that accommodate them.
They are negotiating flexible work schedules, scaling back to 20-hour weeks and working from computers at home. Companies downsizing amid the economy's relentless squeeze are increasingly receptive to women's offers to job-share, sacrifice health benefits and forgo raises in exchange for a little more time with their children.
"I have a real job and I still see my baby," said Ms. Lambros, a 33-year-old law firm associate. "He is the most important thing in the world to me. If this place had not helped me work out a part-time schedule, I would not have come back."
With 45 percent of the American work force made up of women, experts say that corporate America is waking up to the idea that the rigid 9-to-5 day and 40-hour week are luxuries that it can no longer afford -- not if it hopes to retain women workers who have become pillars in its ranks.
"Listen up, guys: . . . You cannot cut out half the labor force and expect to be a successful corporation," said Charles Boesel, spokesman for the Women's Bureau at the U.S. Department of Labor. "If you want to retain the best and the brightest, you have to hire women . . . and have programs in place that keep them happy."
The U.S. labor force is growing older. More men are retiring at one end and more women are entering at the other. Women will make up two-thirds of the net gain in workers by 2005; three-fourths will become pregnant during their working lives, according to Department of Labor forecasts.
More men are taking greater roles in parenting and housekeeping. Still, the strides made by generations of women who broke sex barriers on the job have left today's employed mothers with one foot in the '90s and the other in the '50s.
In a survey of 1,400 women conducted this year by the Ms. Foundation for Women and the Center for Policy Alternatives in New York, one-quarter said that their greatest personal struggle was inflexible work hours.
Germany, France and Sweden have been helping parents balance career and family since the 1960s with flexible work hours. In the United States, though, only a sliver of the work force can opt for anything less than a rigid, full-time schedule.
Those who are cutting such deals tend to be college-educated professionals with career experience too valuable to lose; employers accommodate them because they like them.
Dr. Jamie Baker Knauss, a 39-year-old Pasadena, Calif., pediatrician and mother of two boys, delayed starting her practice for two years until she found a group of doctors flexible enough to share her patient load so she could work three days a week. Ellen McDonnell, a 37-year-old mother of two girls and senior producer of National Public Radio's "Morning Edition," works one day a week out of her Maryland home, a diaper pail beside her desk.
Several employers said they usually get more than three days' work for three days' pay because the part-time employee is focused on the job rather than tugged by a neglected family. The largest criminal fine ever levied in a defense contracting fraud case was won by Assistant U.S. Attorney Julie Fox Blackshaw, a part-time Los Angeles prosecutor and the mother of Jessica, 22 months.
"We have no complaints, " said U.S. Attorney Terree Bowers, Blackshaw's boss.
Alan Murray, deputy chief of the Wall Street Journal's bureau in Washington -- where several reporters have shared beats and have worked part-time -- said flexible scheduling has allowed the newspaper to hold onto experienced women journalists.
"It has been a big payoff for us," Mr. Murray said.
A 1987 task force at Aetna Life & Casualty in Hartford, Conn., found that one-fourth of mothers who took a maternity leave never came back. By its own estimates, Aetna was losing more than $1 million annually in employee turnover; every worker saved was money in the company's pocket.
Aetna instituted a family leave policy and flextime, which required workers to be in the office between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. and left to them when they put in the other 90 minutes of the work day. Within four years, only 9 percent of mothers were failing to return from maternity leave, said Michelle Carpenter, manager of Aetna's work-family strategies unit.
But even women who have the option of scaling back say there is a stigma attached to working less. They believe they are no longer considered serious players, that they fall out of the loop for promotions. Many describe a nagging ambivalence: Once they felt guilty about spending too much time at work; now they feel guilty about not spending enough.
"There was a time I would have killed to be on a big, important, fast-moving criminal case," said one mother working part-time as an attorney. "Now I feel like I'm living in a world of young whippersnappers and I can't compete."