Companies & Industries

Single Moms in Corporate America


Whenever Renee Massoud is preparing to head out of town on business, she takes a few minutes to do some "homework." A single parent and director of research strategies at consulting firm KPMG in New Jersey, Massoud jots several notes to her four-year-old daughter, who discovers one each day at breakfast while her mom is away. One message might ask her preschooler to count how many days until Massoud returns. Another might be stuck in a geography book to show mom's whereabouts. On one early-morning trip to Boston, Massoud remembered while boarding the plane that she'd forgotten to leave a note and scrambled to phone her live-in nanny before her daughter awoke. A stash of stickers at the house saved the day -- along with the explanation that Mommy hadn't left a missive because she would be back in time for dinner.

Single moms and dads run 11.9 million families in the U.S., an increase of 73% since 1980. Single mothers -- divorced, widowed, or never married -- account for some 9.8 million of that total. And more and more of them are juggling play dates with business trips. In 1985, only 522,000 women who headed families with kids under 18 had a bachelor's degree or higher, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By 1998, the most recent year for which data are available, that figure had jumped 79%, to 938,000. That's a far greater percentage increase than for the number of single moms with kids under 18 who completed only high school: That number rose 6% -- to 2.7 million -- from 1985 to 1998.

Moreover, as their ranks have expanded, single mothers who hold college degrees have started to take their place in Corporate America. Of never-married moms aged 15 to 44, for example, 13.5% held managerial and professional positions in 1998, according to the Census Bureau, up from 8.9% in 1990.

NO ALTERNATIVE. Single-mother professionals have to balance work and family just like any parent. But unlike married women -- who can sometimes choose whether or not to punch in at the office after having a child -- single moms usually don't have an alternative short of going on government aid. In 1999, some 49% of married mothers worked full-time, according to Joan Williams, professor of law at American University and author of Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It (Oxford University Press, 1999). By contrast, 71% of divorced moms, who make up two-thirds of all single mothers, held full-time positions. "There's a clash between two social ideals," Williams says. "The ideal worker, who has the life patterns of a man, and the ideal of family members caring for children. Married working mothers solve the clash by cutting back on their hours. Most single moms can't."

Just ask Dr. Christina Zarowsky, senior scientific adviser for health at the International Development Research Center (IDRC), a nonprofit organization established by the Canadian government in Ottawa. Zarowsky, 40, holds a medical degree, a master's in public health from Harvard University, and a master's and soon-to-be-completed doctorate in anthropology from Montreal's McGill University. In 1996, while doing fieldwork in Africa, she adopted a Somali baby and returned to Canada as a single parent. Her work at IDRC requires extensive overseas travel, usually two to three weeks at a time, every other month. Zarowsky, who has been single all her life and says she can't afford a live-in nanny, still hasn't hatched a clear strategy for caring for her daughter, now 5, when she's called out of the country. Sometimes her mother baby-sits; sometimes her daughter tags along. "I keep hoping to travel less," she says.

That's a sentiment shared by many harried business travelers, whether they have kids or not. But for single parents, business travel and other routine demands of a corporate career -- including overtime and interoffice transfers -- can turn life upside down. A hastily called meeting by the boss at 5 p.m., for instance, could mean a frantic plea to an ex-spouse, an empathetic neighbor -- just about anyone -- to pick up a child from day care.

"SO MUCH PRESSURE." "I don't know what other single mothers without flexibility do," says Carrie Coghill, president of financial-planning company D.B. Root & Co. in Pittsburgh and the divorced single mom of 11-year-old Kelli. "When you're married, you work at it together and don't feel so much pressure." Coghill got divorced in 1993 while employed at another financial-planning business. She co-founded D.B. Root the following year, mainly because she was unsatisfied at her job. But the thought that running a business might give her more flexibility in raising Kelli was also "in the back of my mind," she says. Instead of someone dictating which 12 hours she worked every day, she could set them herself.

Indeed, bending your life to fit an organization's needs is much more difficult for single moms, says Deborah Merrill-Sands, co-director of the Center for Gender in Organizations at Simmons College in Boston. Single parents "have to come up with very innovative ways to make it work."

Such as asking your immediate family to parachute in. For a year while Lorena Gonzalez was a senior policy adviser in Sacramento for California Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, she had her retired dad living with her and flew her mom up every other week from San Diego to help out with her young daughter, Tierra. Now the director of Bustamante's regional office in San Diego, the 29-year-old single mom relies on her parents to pick up Tierra, 5, from preschool every afternoon. Gonzalez, who has a law degree from UCLA as well as degrees from Georgetown and Stanford, opted not to marry Tierra's father in part because he didn't want her to work. "I had all this education," she says. "I wanted to use it."

ADVANTAGEOUS DEDICATION. Other single professional women feel the same pull. In a study of 55 single moms, most of them college graduates, sociology professor Rosanna Hertz at Wellesley College found many considered themselves workaholics before they decided to have kids. To a large extent, their jobs filled the void of family life. That dedication worked to the advantage of some once they became single parents. Since they'd established themselves as indispensable employees, they were able to arrange for flexible work schedules. Even so, many in the study felt crunched between work and family, and made tough trade-offs, Hertz says. Some declined promotions or high-profile assignments to preserve time with their children.

At least these people had the chance to say no. Some organizations, experts say, may assume single-mom staffers can't handle new duties because of the responsibilities they're shouldering at home. "Enlightened people will say, 'Oh, she's great -- she can juggle both.' But others may ask, 'Will she put in the time?'" says organizational psychologist Virginia Schein at Gettysburg College and once a single mom herself.

Coghill from Pittsburgh didn't let false assumptions breed about her at work. When she was going through her divorce, she approached her boss at the financial-planning company and told him she felt ready to take on her own clients instead of only assisting colleagues with theirs. Her boss frowned on the idea, but Coghill persisted, telling him she would quit if he didn't give her a chance. He grudgingly relented, and Coghill excelled in her new role. Still, the incident diminished her loyalty to the company - and ultimately, she left. "As a single mom, you need stability, so you may be more likely to let a company dictate your career path," she says. "But you've got to stand up for yourself." By Jennifer Gill in New York


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