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Building the New Stereotype

A new image of working mothers, taking shape at our 100 Best, shows them crafting customized careers--with skills, ambition and abilities as strong as any man's.
More companies are embracing customized careers that bend to the changing needs of working moms. They're creating results-oriented work cultures—rather than time-centric ones—that give working mothers more control over how, when and where they work.

PricewaterhouseCoopers, in its 100 Best application, described the shifts under way: "We do not tolerate the resignation that nothing can change. These beliefs include the assumption that part-time workers are not as committed, working at home means you're not working, and motherhood is incompatible with high performance and client service." Now that's what we call progress.

Boosting the bottom line
A business model in which you routinely undervalue female talent doesn't make sense, says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder and president of the Center for Work-Life Policy and director of its task force on the hidden brain drain. Our 100 Best Companies have discovered that investing in working moms helps their bottom line. And they realize they not only need to hold on to women, they also have to figure out how to give them room to find balance and lead well-rounded lives. "We've asked ourselves, 'What are we doing to promote women?' " says Jim DeVries, senior vice president of human resources at Principal Financial Group, where nearly 70 percent of employees are women. "You have to learn how to be a great place for women with children to work."
Interestingly, a new study shows that a balanced life leads to a more productive employee. The research found that among employees who are parents, those who are highly engaged with their families receive stronger performance reviews than those who always put work first.

"Individuals develop skills from their nonwork roles and transfer those skills to work," says Laura Graves, PhD, a coauthor of the study and an associate professor of management at Clark University in Worcester, MA. For example, if you're a Girl Scout leader, you develop skills that help you coach subordinates on the job.

As companies trade in the notion that family life is a distraction for the belief that work/life balance creates better workers, they'll stop assuming that only men will do well in leadership roles, says Deborah Merrill-Sands, PhD, dean of the School of Management at Simmons College in Boston. Because we're not used to seeing women in top leadership roles, "it's still a much more proactive decision [for companies] to groom women for leadership," she says. "So we have to make a conscious decision to challenge stereotypes when choosing potential leaders." The more we see women in high-profile leadership positions, explains Dr. Merrill-Sands, the more we'll start to associate leadership with women as easily as we now associate leadership with men.

How we stack up to men
The challenge over the past few decades has been to refute those who say motherhood compromises a woman's ability to achieve professionally. We've worked to convince employers that the working- mother choice can be more interesting than simply opting for either the fast track or the mommy track. And we've persuaded many CEOs that the traditional corporate culture—where face time rules and overwork is championed—is an approach that doesn't work for women with families.

In fact, it doesn't work for anyone.

The other challenge comes in measuring how women, and moms in particular, stack up to men in terms of leadership ability. Once again, misconceptions abound. In a 2005 Catalyst report titled Women "Take Care," Men "Take Charge": Stereotyping of U.S. Business Leaders Exposed, women leaders are judged superior to men at supporting and rewarding subordinates, which relates to the "caretaker" stereotype of women. Men leaders, meanwhile, are judged superior to women at delegating and influencing superiors


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