Derailed on the `Daughter Track'

JUST when it seemed safe to pick up the morning paper without being derailed by another headline about the ``mommy track,'' a variation started appearing in its place: the ``daughter track.'' This latest journalistic catch phrase describes women whose careers may be threatened because of the time they spend caring for elderly relatives. Caught between the needs of parents and the demands of employers, they may miss work or be so preoccupied with domestic concerns that their performance is affected. As a consequence, 11 percent of working caregivers quit or are fired because of caregiving responsibilities, according to 9 to 5, a national organization of office workers.

As the over-65 population grows from 31 million today to an estimated 65 million in 2030, career interruptions for caregivers will almost certainly become more common. Already researchers at the University of Connecticut report that for the first time in American history, the average married couple has more parents than children. And a report released last month by the Older Women's League claims that American women spend an average of 18 years helping parents and 17 years caring for children.

If headlines about the daughter track and the mommy track help to focus attention on the needs of working women with dependent relatives, the phrases will serve a useful purpose. Yet these slightly too clever terms pose a subtle danger. They make family - children and parents - seem like a burden. They make the fast track appear to be the only worthwhile career track. And they suggest that only women with no dependents or family responsibilities - unmarried, childless orphans! - will be eligible for promotions or executive positions.

Nor is the daughter track the only workplace challenge caregivers face. While some midlife women worry about losing a job because of caregiving, others worry about being able to reenter the labor force after taking time out to care for children or parents.

Last month Ann Landers ran a letter from ``Turning 50,'' a woman who was passed over 22 times when she applied for work. When Ms. Landers suggested that the woman diffuse her anger and work on a more positive self-image, more than 20,000 women wrote to chide her for her naive advice. ``Nobody hires women who are `Turning 50,''' one reader fumed.

As one solution to the problem, the Displaced Homemakers Network this month is launching a campaign to encourage corporations to hire midlife and older women. Called ``Partners in Change,'' the video will be shown to business leaders this summer.

Other recent corporate initiatives signal a new willingness to acknowledge effects of caregiving on careers.

Fortune magazine and John Hancock Financial Services jointly commissioned a nationwide survey assessing how executives and employees are dealing with elder care issues. Just as child care was the workplace issue of the 1980s, the report explains, elder care promises to be the emerging employee benefit of the 1990s.

And at AT&T, a new labor contract is being hailed as a ``breakthrough'' in employee benefits. In addition to provisions for child care, the package allows employees to take up to one year of unpaid leave to care for ailing relatives. AT&T calls the plan a family-care package, signifying that caregiving and careers are not mutually exclusive endeavors.

Similarly, the Family and Medical Leave Act, which is expected to come up for a vote this summer, includes 10 weeks of unpaid leave within a 24-month period for the care of a seriously ill parent.

Despite the gender-neutral nature of these initiatives, caregiving remains primarily a woman's responsibility. According to the Fortune/John Hancock survey, female employees are more likely to provide companionship and personal care. By contrast, male employees are more apt to make telephone calls and to offer ``emotional reassurance.''

In time, as more companies offer family-care benefits, caregiving may become more equally divided between women and men, daughters and sons. When that happens, perhaps women will no longer find themselves on daughter tracks or mommy tracks, chugging along on a slow career train to nowhere. They will cease to be penalized professionally for doing what has always been considered the primary function of the family - looking after its own.

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