Changing career values make room for family

ONE OF THE MORE "family-unfriendly" pieces of advice for working women in the 1970s and '80s was this: Never display pictures of your children on your desk.

For men, a framed photo of the wife and kiddies was viewed as a positive addition to his desk, pegging him as a responsible family man. But for women of that era, still seeking full acceptance in the workplace, children were regarded as a liability. A boss might wonder: How can you focus on your job if your heart is at home? The solution was simple: Downplay your family.

What a difference a few decades make. Walk through any office today and women's desks, like men's, hold pictures of children. The family, once stigmatized at work, is now increasingly accepted.

So accepted, in fact, that publicly expressing a desire to spend more time with the family is fast becoming a favorite reason for leaving a job.

From Scottish rugby player John Leslie to the Hong Kong Philharmonic's general manager Edith Lei Mei-lon, and from American golfer Nancy Lopez to Sun Bancorp board chairman Fred Kelly, the plaintive cry, "I want to spend more time with my family," echoes around the world.

Tugging at their hearts are babies, teenagers, and grandchildren. No one has yet stated publicly that they'll be spending more time with aging parents, but as caregiving comes out of the shadows as a workplace issue, even that might change.

The latest defector making headlines is Karen Hughes, President Bush's key adviser, who last week invoked her family in announcing her resignation. Her 15-year-old son and her lawyer husband both miss Texas, she said, so all three will be heading home to Austin this summer.

Ms. Hughes broke new ground by acknowledging that her husband's unhappiness in Washington contributed to her decision. In an age of high divorce rates, that consideration for a spouse and a marriage merits applause.

Far from being a "betrayal" of high-level women, as one critic complained, Hughes's decision counts as a welcome sign of progress for women and men alike. Her message is: Being the most powerful woman on the White House staff just isn't the right priority right now.

Even when "more family time" becomes a smoke screen to mask an employee's real reason for quitting, it still represents a victory of sorts. Ten years ago, most men would never have dared use such a warm-and-fuzzy excuse.

Likewise, women would have worried that such a public declaration of family allegiance would mark them as lacking commitment to work.

No longer. Like the family photos now sitting proudly on women's desks, the "more-time-with-my-family" explanation signals a changing workplace.

The new message is: A career doesn't always need to be linear – one long, unbroken line stretching from graduation to retirement. A career can be malleable and flexible, made up of straight lines and zigzags, with a hiatus or two thrown in at appropriate junctures. The result can add up to a satisfying life, with priorities firmly in place.

Hughes, for instance, may be resigning from her $140,000 job, but she is hardly fading into the Texas sunset. She will continue to advise the president by phone, and expects to return to Washington every two weeks.

That sounds like telecommuting, another legitimate way to humanize jobs.

Americans are not the only ones trying to reshape the workforce. In Europe, a debate is growing about the nature of work, including the need to have time for children and time for pleasure.

"This is not just about tweaking a few hours for working mums," wrote Guardian columnist Madeleine Bunting last week. Rather, it is about a "radical redirection" away from long hours.

Count Karen Hughes among the brave leaders of that radical redirection. For now, the prospect of one door closing at the White House sparks dreams of other doors opening elsewhere for anyone with the courage to follow her example. Photos on a desk are portable.

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