Family Friendly Firms Don’t Always Promote Females

Women in Management: Family Friendly Firms Don’t Always Promote Females

The Wall Street Journal
Rochelle Sharpe

Family-friendly companies aren’t always a woman’s best friend.

Some of the companies with the best family-oriented benefits, such as day care, family leave and flextime, have some of the worst records for promoting women, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of more than 38,000 companies that file job data with the federal government. And some other companies that don’t bother with such programs have relatively high numbers of women managers.

These findings may seem surprising, but they reflect the fact that many ambitious women believe that unwritten rules punish employees who use family-friendly benefits.

At many companies that offer part-time, telecommuting and job-sharing programs, usage rates are at or below 2% because so many women view family policies as lethal to advancement, says Fran Rodgers, president of Work/Family Directions, a Boston consulting group that surveyed the policies of 80 large corporations. The fear that family issues will hurt their careers is so pervasive, adds Felice Schwartz, a former president of Catalyst, a New York group that studies women in business, that some new MBA graduates remove their wedding rings before interviews.

Some companies, such as Monsanto Co. and H.J. Heinz Co., get low marks for family-friendly policies but have high percentages of female managers for their industries. According to some consultants, that’s because other programs such as training, recruitment and succession planning are more important factors in women’s advancement than family policies. The consultants also believe that family policies can emphasize the differences between genders, making it tougher for women to overcome stereotypes and be seriously considered for top jobs.

It’s a lot harder for companies to propel women into management than to offer innovative work-family policies, says Dana Friedman, co-president of the Families and Work Institute in New York, the only think tank to rate companies on their family friendliness. Promoting women is a lot more threatening, she says, because unlike implementing family policies it can shift the status quo of the corporate power structure.

At DuPont Co., rated one of the most family-friendly companies in the country, women who use flextime can’t rise to the top, contends Deborah Donovan, 43 years old, the company’s first woman lawyer to have a child. “The pressures of middle management are such that flextime means you don’t have to work Saturday afternoon,” she says. “My pet peeve was the occasional Sunday morning meeting. This is the family-friendly company? I couldn’t even always take Sunday mornings off” to go to church.

Ms. Donovan, who escaped many of these pressures when she transferred to San Francisco with DuPont in 1991, says there is a “mommy track” at the company for women who try to balance work and family. She joined a support group in 1989 with four other fast-track DuPont women – all of whom were mothers – and has watched them be derailed one after the other. After she moved to California and slowed her hectic work pace from 80 hours a week to 60, she says, she was no longer as visible and was overlooked for promotions.

DuPont says it judges employees on their work, not their family situations, and notes that some women with children have been promoted repeatedly. But the company says it still isn’t satisfied with its percentage of female managers, which was 9.3% in 1992, one of the lowest percentages in the basic materials industry, according to the Journal analysis of data filed with the Labor Department.

Family-friendly policies can help women advance, consultants say. While these policies are primarily credited with improving workers’ productivity and retention, they can also ease the first decade of a woman’s career, when the juggling act between work and family can be most complicated.

“Half the people are written off on family issues early in their careers,” says Ms. Rodgers, who believes that familyfriendly policies are necessary but aren’t enough by themselves to allow women to break into top management.

At Monsanto, which got a low mark from the Families and Work Institute for its family policies, executives attribute the relatively high number of women managers to succession planning and mentoring programs, as well as to specific improvement goals. The company had 15.9% women managers in 1992, which is low compared with the national average but the highest of the companies that the Journal analyzed in the basic materials industry. (“We’re not anywhere near satisfied,” says Nicholas Reding, the company’s vice chairman.)

Heinz, by contrast, doesn’t have many formalized programs to help women advance or to help employees balance work and family, yet it still had a high percentage of women managers – 27.6% in 1992. The company, which also got a low family-friendly rating from the Families and Work Institute, says its long legacy of hiring women may explain its large number of women managers. Back in the 1800s, Heinz was the only big company in Pittsburgh that hired many women, giving them factory jobs and a chance to supervise other factory workers, says Debbie Foster, the general manager of corporate communications.

So far, few companies have changed their cultures enough to convince women that they can take advantage of family policies without some risk to their careers. But those companies that have, such as Johnson & Johnson, are beginning to keep women who otherwise would have quit. With 27.9% female managers in 1992, the company had one of the highest percentages of female managers in the consumer noncyclical industry.

The company was able to hold onto Martha Arnold, now a business development director, because of its work-family policies. Ms. Arnold decided she wanted to work part-time for nearly three years after the birth of her first son, and she says the company obliged, telling her she would probably be promoted when she returned to work full-time.

Ms. Arnold says she worked three days a week until the company’s day-care center opened. When she returned, she began her director’s job.

“I would not be at this level except for family-friendly policies,” she says. “If part time hadn’t been available, I doubt I would still be with Johnson & Johnson.”