March 8, 1998 in Nation/World

More Companies Embrace Family-Friendly Practices But Struggle To Strike A Balance Between Work And Family Life Goes On

Ellen Forman Knight-Ridder
 

In college, Ana Blanchard chose public accounting as a career, thinking that once her kids were born, she could launch a home-based business.

Much to her surprise, a decade later, she was able to combine work and family in her job as a tax manager in the West Palm Beach office of Deloitte & Touche, one of the world’s largest accounting firms.

The reason: Deloitte & Touche has given Blanchard, 31, the freedom to move between part-time and full-time schedules as she raises Max, 6, and Alec, 3. She’s also had two promotions.

“I have a lot of opportunity,” Blanchard said. “I feel my clients are the best in the office.”

Blanchard’s is the kind of success story that’s heralded by people who support programs to balance work and home life. But in spite of two decades of public focus on these issues, and millions of difficult private choices, such stories are still rare.

Take the case of Mirta Robelo, a Miami mother of four. She recently left her job as director of financial services when her boss demanded longer hours and a start time of 8:30 a.m. It was impossible for Robelo, who had to drop children off at school.

“I understand corporate America has a job to do, and there’s certain goals and structure, but it’s really very difficult for women once they have kids if the company isn’t offering them flex time,” she said.

In spite of more programs that offer flexibility, the sense of discomfort is growing. A study by the Families and Work Institute found 54 percent of workers surveyed had some or a lot of interference between their job and family life, compared with 38 percent in a similar study 20 years ago. More workers are working longer hours, with 27 percent putting in 51 or more hours, compared with 19 percent 20 years ago, the survey said.

Baby Boomers - the generation accustomed to work as an all-consuming enterprise - now question how much they can pour into the workplace when children or elderly parents need them at home.

Slowly, the issue is moving past mommies, into less traditional spheres. Last month, Louis Freeh, director of no less a male bastion than the FBI, went on paternity leave after his wife, Marilyn, gave birth to their sixth son.

“I’ll serve here as long as my family obligations will permit it,” Freeh said of his job in December. “I am sure that will be a factor that will influence future plans.”

Younger men and women, the so-called “Generation X” and “Generation Y” in their 20s and early 30s, watched downsizing disrupt their families and now demand a more balanced life. They’re asking corporate recruiters whether they offer schedules and benefits that will allow them to work and raise families, pushing more companies to present themselves as family friendly.

Yet the vast majority of corporations - and executives - say promotions and other goodies should belong to people who are always there, and willing to drop all for the sake of the job.

What can - and should - be done to accommodate family concerns? And in light of the corporation’s decisions, what’s Mom - or Dad - to do?

Workers say many bosses are willing to negotiate a staggered start time to fit a drop-off schedule, or allow a parent to take time off for a child’s soccer practice or play - if the work gets done.

A handful of corporations have gone further, building on-site child-care centers to help lure workers with young families. Others have established lactation rooms for nursing mothers.

But research and anecdotal experience point to two key factors in successful work-family balances: Support for the programs at the very top of the organization, and a supervisor who helps you meet your family obligations as you get your work done.

Blanchard’s story reflects these factors, and more.

Her husband Jose, a cash manager at Florida Crystals, alternates doing the pick-ups and drop-offs at school and day care. He spends as much time at home with the kids as she does, and more during tax season, Blanchard said.

The Blanchards have parents who live nearby and are able to pitch in when the kids are sick - and baby-sit when Mom and Dad want a night out alone.

The chairman of her firm, J. Michael Cook, was voted Working Mother magazine’s family advocate of the year, and promotes their work-family balance programs.

Blanchard’s boss guides her toward the right types of challenges - and steers her away from others.

The major public accounting firms have taken to flexible scheduling in the wake of 25 percent annual turnover. Talented, trained women were leaving after several years to take less-demanding jobs, or work on their own practices, as they raised children.

“You cannot afford to re-establish your professional staff once every four years,” said Susan Petersen, tax partner in charge of Deloitte’s West Palm Beach operation and Blanchard’s boss. “Our service is related to personal relationships. If you keep going out to the client with new faces each time, the clients say, ‘We’re tired of training your staff.”’ Accompanying these programs at the firms was a major mind-shift: Work need not be an all-or-nothing proposition.

The real work of making family-friendly arrangements work is done by people like Petersen, who supervises Blanchard and three other women with part-time schedules. The third woman among more than 600 men elected to partnership at Deloitte & Touche, Petersen has worked her way up through a difficult culture and wants to help keep talented women with children on board.

For Ana Blanchard, there were plenty of choices. She arrived in the United States on the Mariel Boat Lift, driven to succeed by her parents’ sacrifice.

As a child, she spoke no English. At high school graduation, she was class valedictorian. When she took the CPA exam, she had the highest score in the state of Florida.

At Deloitte, she works closely with her boss, often as a team. As a part-timer, she learned to be careful about documenting the work she left, what questions remained opened, what needs the client might have.

She credits Petersen with guiding her career, helping her make tough decisions about which clients she can handle and when to say no. “My boss wants to make it work,” she said. “She’s committed to keeping the people she wants to keep.”

Waiting in the distance is the gold ring - partnership. “It’s a big accomplishment to be partner, but my No. 1 priority is my family,” Blanchard said. “If a partnership can fit into my No. 1 priority, then it’s for me.”

Her next step is back into a four-day work week, so she can spend more time with the kids.

“I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t allowed to work part time,” she said.

A recent study by Catalyst, a New York research organization, found that 37 percent of part-time professionals, like Blanchard, claimed their working arrangement was essential for continuing with their employer. More than half said their arrangement increased their commitment to the company, and 92 percent said it had increased their morale.

Corporate support for part-time arrangements, even when they’re offered, often has been lukewarm. In her book “The Time Bind,” sociologist Arlie Hochschild said workers felt obligated to stay at work by an overall sense that people who didn’t would eventually be penalized.

When it comes to balance, Joan Peters, author of “When Mothers Work: Loving Our Children Without Losing Ourselves,” sees hope in small gestures people in traditional jobs can make. She noted that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg recently gave her clerk a flexible schedule when she became a new parent.

“If you’re a woman running a business, or even on the Supreme Court, you’re in a position to make a model of a new kind of business protocol,” she said. “That’s how things are changing.”

Get stories like this in a free daily email


Please keep it civil. Don't post comments that are obscene, defamatory, threatening, off-topic, an infringement of copyright or an invasion of privacy. Read our forum standards and community guidelines.

You must be logged in to post comments. Please log in here or click the comment box below for options.

comments powered by Disqus