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‘Mommy Track’ Stigma Still Dogs Felice Schwartz

March 18, 1990

NEW YORK (AP) _ After nearly three decades of bushwhacking trails for women into the male- dominated workplace, Felice N. Schwartz has spent much of the past year fighting accusations she is a traitor.

She hasn’t capitulated. On the contrary, the dispute between her and some influential feminists seems to have sharpened.

Schwartz is the founder of a prominent corporate consulting firm in Manhattan called Catalyst, which promotes sexual equality at work and was spawned during the feminist movement of the early 1960s.

It is now one of the leading advisers on women’s issues to large American businesses. Schwartz’s connections give her access to the heads of companies ranging from Citibank to Sara Lee Corp.

Last year Schwartz hurtled herself into the public eye by authoring a widely read article that became associated with the press buzzword ″mommy track,″ although she didn’t invent the term and has repudiated it many times.

She asserted in the article, titled ″Management Women and the New Facts of Life,″ that the growing role of women in the workforce has forced companies to become more responsive and sensitive to their needs in order to attract and retain the most talented.

But the article, published in the January-February 1989 Harvard Business Review, created an uproar among women. It was perceived as distinguishing two paths for management women, a fast one for the strictly career-driven and childless, a slower dead-end route for those who want to raise families.

Other well-known women activists quickly distanced themselves from Schwartz and accused her of giving companies an excuse to put women down after many years of steady advances.

They said her assertions amounted to a stark choice between career and family, reinforced sexual stereotypes and assumed that the burden of childrearing remained strictly a woman’s domain.

Schwartz, a 65-year-old grandmother and tough-talking corporate executive in her own right, has rejected those accusations, blaming them partly on misunderstandings and distortions of her position.

She has faced the criticism with a mixture of defiance, anguish, frustration and humility. She has debated her feminist adversaries and articulated her position hundreds of times in speeches and interviews.

″The purpose of that article was to encourage corporate leaders to make progress in assimilating women at every level of management and to remove barriers to their advancement,″ she told a conference in January, for example. ″I wrote of the need for employers to revise their thinking, their policies and their practices in order to meet the needs of employees who choose to combine work and family.″

Having to explain herself more than a year later shows how the ″mommy track″ stigma has been difficult to dislodge.

Nonetheless, Schwartz said in an interview, she would not change a word of the article or where she chose to publish it.

″I wanted the Harvard Business Review because I wanted to reach corporate leaders. This was not an article for women,″ she said. ″I did not write the article for Good Housekeeping, Ms. or Working Woman.″

But the article provoked such concern from women that Harvard Business Review sold 11,000 reprints. Schwartz was besieged with press requests from other women’s magazines and foreign journalists from Venezuela to Australia.

She did 75 interviews in two months, often encountering what she called the same misinterpretations of her arguments. She often wound up spending much of the time denying and disavowing ″the mommy track″ idea.

Schwartz said her patience finally expired during a broadcast with a West Coast radio station, when she exploded at her interviewer because the woman admitted she hadn’t read the article. ″That was a catharsis,″ she said.

In some ways, the controversy has further enhanced her influence, which has grown steadily since she founded Catalyst in 1962 as a research and consulting service to help women re-enter the workforce after raising families, something she did herself after taking an 8-year break to raise three children.

Schwartz said that in the past year speaking invitations have multiplied from colleges, institutes, and business conferences. She said women ranging from MBA candidates to CIA employees have approached her with positive and encouraging comments.

″I’m absolutely euphoric. It’s opened discussion to issues that had been submerged,″ she said. ″What I want to do is encourage honesty and openness.″

Many influential professional women have expressed admiration for Schwartz’s ability to reach into male-dominated corporate bastions so boldly, although they have mixed feelings about what she says.

″I think what she did was very good because it brought the issue to the table,″ said Deborah Biondolillo, vice president of human resources for the computer company Apple USA. ″I didn’t happen to agree with her solutions.″

Schwartz has failed to appease her most vociferous critics, prominent feminists who think her approach is misguided, elitist, arrogant and destructive. Many still believe she has perpetuated the ″mommy track″ idea despite her denials.

″Her article was a very dangerous retrogression and acquiescence to sex discrimination,″ said Betty Friedan, a co-founder of the National Organization for Women and author of ″The Feminine Mystique,″ considered one of the most important books about the women’s movement.

″I have not changed one iota in my mind my outrage at Felice Schwartz,″ Friedan said. ″She is simply not a feminist, not committed to equality. She has an employer mentality.″

Even some less militant proponents of women’s rights are concerned that Schwartz has hurt their efforts to obtain professional parity with men. Some say she has further isolated herself by suggesting that women disclose at job interviews whether they plan to have children.

″Women are still getting fired from their jobs when they’re pregnant. I don’t know why she thinks we have that kind of protection,″ said Judsen Culbreth, editor of Working Mother magazine.

″Putting this burden on women is just such backward thinking, just such 1950s, man-in-the-pinstripe-suit type thinking,″ Culbreth said. ″I don’t think she’s meant to do this, but it particularly does damage to working mothers, who are going to have this question mark raised now in the minds of so many corporations.″

Both Schwartz and her critics have said the discussion is helpful. Still, Schwartz said, ″I am sure there are still lots of women who think I’m their enemy. That’s painful after 27 years.″

End Adv for Sunday March 18

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