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Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer (HANDOUT/REUTERS)
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer (HANDOUT/REUTERS)

Is being a mom still a bad career move? Add to ...

Face time – and by that I don’t mean some trendy product made by Apple – still rules, apparently.

That’s my takeaway from a recent blog from the Harvard Business Review (HBR) that seems to suggest that women in the corner office are going to retain their curiosity status for some time to come – because they simply are unwilling to put in enough time at work.

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Okay, I should back up and say that the HBR article relates to moms, not women in general. According to special tabulations of data from the U.S. Census Bureau, as of 2011 the percentage of employed American mothers who work more than 50 hours a week was a paltry 9 per cent. In contrast, the percentage of fathers (and the survey relates only to those who live with their children) who work more than that many hours is 29 per cent.

For individuals who have a college degree the gap is even wider, at 14 per cent of women compared with 37 per cent of similarly educated men. (We do not have easily comparable data for Canadian parents. But we do know that, according to Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey, as of April, men working full time put in an average 42.2 hours a week compared with 38.1 hours for women.)

The difference in hours worked presumably goes some distance toward explaining why the Marissa Mayers of the world are still the exception rather than the norm. Ms. Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo Inc., is indeed a mom – one who was willing to scurry back to work after a two-week maternity leave. It helped that at her level she could bring the kid and his nanny into the office any time she saw fit.

For other women, particularly those who hit motherhood before they are shorted-listed to be a CEO, the flexibility is somewhat less, and they do pull back on their hours. I would argue that most figure it is a reasonable trade-off or else they would not do it, but that could be subject to debate.

The HBR article is pretty downbeat, but I have to say that from an economic point of view I am not sure I see anything that terrible about the trend. First of all, the majority of parents (men and women) are apparently working less than 50 hours a week – some presumably because they prefer to see their kids once in a while. Years ago the expression for the less ambitious in the corporate world was “mommy tracked,” but maybe now we could extend that to “parent tracked by choice” (or something less unwieldy, maybe). The other, “fast track” group does contain more men than women, but even that is only going to matter if the only criterion for promotion to the top jobs is face time.

Then again, the other, sadder, premise of that article is the idea that there are indeed still big rewards for face time, rather than for great work. That premise has come into focus again with the recent decisions by companies (notably Ms. Mayer’s Yahoo, but also including Best Buy Co. Inc. and Bank of America) to order stricter controls on telecommuting. Message: If you want us to think you are working – let alone have us consider you for a plum job – we need to be able to see you.

Utopian conditions they are not, for men and women alike, but I see it all as more a work in progress than any kind of absolute. Technology exists to create different kinds of work arrangements, but at this point neither companies nor managers (ironically, including those at technology companies) quite know what to do with it. Here’s hoping that in a decade or two they will have a better handle on things, which would be a positive for the economy as well as for individual ambitions.

Linda Nazareth is the principal of Relentless Economics Inc. and a senior fellow at the Macdonald Laurier Institute.

 

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