Astudy that tracked the careers of women who asked for and got flexible work arrangements a decade ago found that these women are satisfied with the balance they were able to forge between work and family life.
Catalyst, a nonprofit research group that focuses on women in business, followed 24 women who negotiated a part-time, flextime or job-share assignment, usually after the birth of a child.
The survey found that half continue to work part time while half eventually returned to work full-time. All are acutely aware of the professional and personal sacrifices each course required, but they are satisfied with the results. They were able to maintain some professional momentum because a career slow-down is preferable to a career standstill.
"What does satisfaction mean to them?" asks Marcia Brumit Kropf, vice president for research and information services for Catalyst, from her New York office. "They were looking for something more than simply a job title. They want creative and challenging work. They want to feel like they give value to their companies. But they are looking at the next rung of the ladder above them and not finding it very attractive because of the time or travel required."
The Catalyst survey has significant limitations as a workplace barometer. The sample is small. Catalyst was able to locate only 24 women from a survey done 10 years ago.
And those women are white, highly educated and in high-level professional jobs: vice president, partner, chief counsel.
"We can't make the mistake of saying these results can be generalized to the larger work force," says Kropf. "But what makes this survey unique is that it is a 10-year retrospective. We are not just talking to similar people. We are talking to the same people. And there is a lot we can learn."
Most of these women faced resistance when they tried to negotiate a flexible or reduced work week. Their supervisors were wary. Such arrangements were considered temporary, vehicles to aid new mothers' transition back to full-time work after maternity leave, not a career path.
But the tables have turned. In this full-employment economy, flextime and part-time jobs have become tools for companies to recruit and retain women workers.
According to a separate survey of employers, Catalyst reports, flextime is more attractive to prospective employees than above-market pay or stock options.
The survey also found that women were not using their time away from work to throw in an extra load of wash. None was doing traditional household tasks. Instead, they were regular volunteers and community leaders.
"These women were highly active in community activities that impacted on their children's lives," says Kropf. "And that is something corporations need to think about. Who do we want leading our organization? These people are ambassadors for their company. "
Other benefits accrue to the company as well. These women reported doing more work than they originally agreed to do because they were determined to make their part-time arrangement work.
Those women who returned to work full time reported doing so for a variety of reasons. Even those women agreed that part-time work was "the best of all worlds."
But the real world still looks like this: Most employees can't afford to work less than full time nor do they want to. Those who do work less continue to face the mistrust of managers who are worried about commitment and productivity and availability. They also face the resentment of co-workers.
It is not surprising, then, that the women interviewed by Catalyst made it a priority to encourage and facilitate part-time and flextime arrangements for those under their supervision.
"These women had no role models," says Kropf. "So they are trying to serve as role models."
Flexibility is on the rise, and it continues to be a priority for women, says Kropf. But working mothers are not the only employees who would value flexible scheduling over pay or benefits.
Working fathers are not immune to the pull of their children's busy little lives. And there are millions of reasons why an employee might need or want to work part time or at odd hours. To train for a marathon. To go back to school. To work for a nonprofit. Or they might simply need or want to work less.
A change in the corporate climate will be difficult, Kropf says.
"Our systems, our processes and our culture has been created assuming everyone you work with is in one place, and it is hard to change that. Unfortunately, managers still have to see flextime work before ast they understand it."