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By Pamela Mendels in New York
MAY 26, 2000

Getting a Boost from "Slow-Track Moms"

Savvy women who've scaled back their careers have plenty to offer smart small businesses


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To me, the title of the new book And What Do You Do? is self-explanatory. I knew immediately it must be an examination of mothers who have stepped off the career fast track because it poses a question dreaded by legions of women who have put their families first. They know that responding to the dreaded query with something like "I'm a freelancer so I can spend more time at home" often leads the questioner to move on to a person of seemingly greater stature. I know because I've been among them, the supposedly stature-challenged.

Their ranks are much larger than you'd think. I was curious to see just how many of these slow-trackers or no-trackers there are, so I spent some time poring over a 1997-98 Labor Dept. statistical survey of working parents. Some back-of-the-envelope scratching revealed that a significant chunk -- about 32% of American women with children under the age of 18 -- don't have jobs outside the home. Moreover, of the women who do work, a sizable group works less than full-time -- about 6.3 million, or some 25% of working mothers. Consider the equivalent figure for fathers: About 770,000, or 3%, are part-timers.

I was interested in what the numbers might mean for small business and put in a call to Mary W. Quigley, who co-authored And What Do You Do? with Loretta E. Kaufman. (Quigley is a journalism professor who once hired me for an adjunct teaching job.) The authors had extensively interviewed some 75 women for the book.

UNTAPPED RESOURCE. Her take -- and I agree -- is that the savvy small-business owner starving for talent in a tight labor market should see a precious labor source in mothers who have scaled back their career plans. The women quoted in And What Do You Do? include a lawyer, a clinical psychologist, a mathematician, and a one-time creative director at a New York advertising agency.

They left their jobs for a number of reasons, including just enjoying motherhood. But also driving many of them away from the office was the 24/7 business trend and the proliferation of e-mail messages, beepers, and other innovations that make work available all the time. "A lot of women felt that life was not contained to the office," Quigley says. "They were bringing home paperwork for after the baby was put to bed -- demands beyond what a reasonable person could expect."

Business owners willing to think creatively might find that they can ease these sorts of strains and, thereby, plumb a valuable labor pool. This means things like crafting working hours so that women who wince at the idea of latch-key children can be out of the office by 3:00. A further benefit of employing slow-track moms is the possibility of saving some money. Quigley says, "I don't think these people are looking for a whole smorgasbord of employee benefits." (At least those who get the health-insurance coverage from dad's job.)

A third benefit is a rare commodity in these days of rapid job-hopping -- employee loyalty. As Quigley puts it: "I think lots of women are out there who would be happy, long-term employees if they could work a part-time schedule or a job-share."

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Pamela Mendels is freelance writer based in New York City. She wrote about small business and had a workplace advice column at Newsday, and has written about workplace matters for Business Week, WorkingWoman, and the Web site iGuide.


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