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DIVIDED HEARTS. As the demand rises for flexible jobs to allow mothers and fathers time to be with young children, some employers have found advantages to a part-time professional labor force. But many employers are still reluctant to accommodate workers' changing needs.

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 6, 1987



St. Petersburg, Fla.

JUST before the birth of her first child early last year, Mirelle James took a leave of absence as an attorney for the city of St. Petersburg. Her department hired a replacement, and she was uncertain about plans to return. Nine months later, at the invitation of her boss, Michael Davis, Mrs. James was back at work part time. So was her colleague, Kim Streeter, another city attorney who left to have a baby about the same time.

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``They have such a good attitude here about women having children and men having families,'' James says. ``When you come in and tell them you're pregnant, Mike says, `Isn't that wonderful!'''

Mr. Davis explains the arrangement: ``We asked them to come back on a half-time basis for a year. Both were highly regarded, and we were glad to have them back. I haven't seen any problems with it at all. It's worked out well.''

His attitude illustrates the potential advantage of flexible schedules for both employers and employees. Yet only 18 percent of all workers hold part-time jobs, according to Diane Rothberg, president of the Association of Part-Time Professionals in McLean, Va.

Among employed women, nearly three-quarters work full time.

Again and again in recent interviews with mothers around the country, the same plaintive plea arose: the need for flexible jobs to allow parents - mothers and fathers - time to be with young children.

Despite the strong demand, Dr. Rothberg finds ``no groundswell of [employer] interest in part time at the professional level. We see a lot of potential. But there are still a lot of attitudinal problems.''

Those problems range from specific concerns about increased paper work and higher costs to vague worries about inconvenience, lack of continuity, and communication. Some managers, Rothberg says, also claim that ``you can't really be professional and part time.''

Susan Mellini, another lawyer in St. Petersburg, offers an example of that attitude. She worked part time for two years before the birth of her second child.

``The law firm I worked for was very good and very flexible,'' she says.

``But I was told straight out that if I didn't eventually work full time, I'm not serious about my career. My response to that was, `If I wasn't serious about being an attorney, I wouldn't be here at all, because as a working mother you have not one job but two.'''

Even female managers are not always supportive, women claim. ``So many of the influential women who have a large say in corporations don't have children themselves,'' says Susan Anderson of Chicago, a former television anchor woman who is now at home with her two young children. ``They can't really be our allies.'' A recent Business Week survey, she notes, shows that only about 25 percent of women in senior positions are mothers.

``Most women don't want to stay home forever,'' Ms. Anderson adds. ``They want to stay home for a block of time, and then they want to gradually move back in.

``But how do you change the work ethic? Everybody is so proud of it. We wear it as if it's a badge: `I worked 80 hours last week.' We expect other people to praise us and admire us for that. Families are paying a price.

``I don't know why we don't have a more charitable feeling toward parents with young children. We think if we have day-care centers all across the country, we've got the matter solved. I don't think that's the case. We need a better balance in our lives.''

Part-time workers are quick to cite the advantages of more balanced schedules.

``There's a lot of wasted time in an eight-hour day and a five-day week,'' says Kim Streeter, Mirelle James's colleague. ``When you work part time, you learn to budget your time, learn to crank out the work. Without working a full load, it's refreshing when you do get to sit down with your work.''

Julie Harrison, a nurse-midwife and mother of two in Chicago, echoes that theme, saying, ``I feel passionately that part-time people can give a lot, and two part-time people can give more than one full-time person in some instances.

``The work may not be exactly what you had initially. We have to be realistic. But I do think there are jobs in most establishments that would benefit by being shared.''

Still, there are pitfalls.

``Many employers expect you to get five days of work done in three,'' says Gail Manning of Chicago. ``You don't want to work more hours for less money, so you say, `I might as well work full time.'''

Another disadvantage is a lack of benefits: pension coverage, health care, and vacations. ``Prorated benefits are clearly necessary,'' Rothberg says. She notes that Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts has introduced legislation requiring mandatory benefits coverage for people working at least 17 hours a week.