By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/16/2010 9:50:09 AM ET 2010-08-16T13:50:09

The traditional model of professional success in corporate America has been based on a "Company Man" archetype popularized in the 1950s, which mainly referred to a white, male, corporate climber with a wife at home.

Fast forward to 2010. Women now make up 51 percent of the total U.S. workforce. Last year, the number of working moms as sole family breadwinners hit a record high. As a result, many working moms are starting to think this outdated career template needs an overhaul.

Lisa Depew, 34, was an application engineer for Intel Corp. when her first son arrived in 2005. She took five months off to be with her son, thanks to family leave and an earned sabbatical, and then proposed working a part-time schedule. She later had another child, and as her kids got older, she requested a three-and-a-half-day schedule and eventually moved to a 40-hour week with Mondays working at home. She is now the technical lead for tools and technologies services in the sales and marketing group at Intel, based in Santa Clara, Calif.

“Could my career have advanced faster? Probably,” said Depew. “But would I have changed anything? No.”

A growing number of working women are defining success on their own terms. While their career trajectories seem atypical, and they’ve made job decisions based on their family — something which would have doomed most corporate climbers in the past — it works for them.

Vote: Does your job give you work/life balance?

Tricia Kagerer, 45, negotiated with a Dallas-based construction company to work flexible hours so she could pick up and drop off her kids at day care and school. She is now the vice president of risk management for the firm, C.F. Jordan Construction.

“When they offered me the job, I was clear that my kids come first,” said Kagerer, whose kids are 11 and 14.

Beyond 'Leave It to Beaver'
Not all working moms are as lucky.

“There’s still a whole class of women that don’t have the luxury of thinking about redefining success. They are working to put food on table,” said Rosalind Hudnell, Intel’s director of Global Diversity & Inclusion.

But, she added, the structure of work is slowly changing because of the influx of women into the workforce and will eventually impact women and men from all socioeconomic levels.

“People are realizing that ‘Leave It to Beaver’ isn’t how everyone is going to live their lives,” she said.

Many new mothers are better educated than they were two decades ago and are increasingly having children at a later age. Today, one in seven babies is born to a mother at least 35 years old .  

Marianne DelPo Kulow, a mother of two, said she had her first child at 40 and a second at 42. She decided to leave a career as a high-powered attorney for something more conducive to raising a family, so she went into academia. She is now a law professor and director of the Women’s Leadership Institute at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass.

Vote: Does your job give you work/life balance?

“How do you define success?” asked Kulow, 49. “Within the profession I’ve chosen, I made it. I’m respected by my peers, at the top of my salary scale and I’m able to pick my kids up at 3.”

New research suggests that the majority of women in the U.S. are satisfied with both their professional and personal accomplishments. A survey by Kenexa Research Institute looked at whether women thought their futures looked promising, and 62 percent said: “I can meet my career goals and still devote sufficient attention to my family/personal life.” That compares to 59 percent among men who feel that way.

For women in the U.S., “having a fulfilled or satisfied personal life is an aspect of achieving a promising future at an organization,” said Brenda Kowske, research manager and at Kenexa

Today, women are in a keen position to reshape the linear career ladder upward. But one big question remains:

“Are we being pioneers or simply giving in?” asked Pamela Stone, associate professor of sociology at Hunter College and author of “Opting Out: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home.”

If women are just changing their idea of success because they’ve given up fighting a society that deprives working moms of opportunities to advance, then it’s not a good thing, said Stone. However, if working moms are essentially transforming the work dynamic to meet their needs, she said, then that's progress.

Clearly women have a long way to go when it comes to getting the top seats at U.S. corporations, with women holding only 13.5 percent of the executive officer positions, according to Catalyst. And women still make 77 cents on the dollar to men.

It’s been hotly debated whether this is about bias against women, or their decisions to cut back hours or opt out, or about a system that just hasn’t adapted to the needs of working parents. The U.S. is one of the only industrialized nations without mandatory paid family leave, and good child care options are few and far between.

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Changes in the workplace
But the growing power of working moms may alter the landscape once and for all.

“When you get a critical mass of women in any professions, you do get changes,” said William Doherty, professor and director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program in the department of family social science at the University of Minnesota.

“Women are reshaping the workforce, and I think a cultural change is underway,” he added, pointing to the health care industry. “You have 50 percent or more of the young doctors today are women, and as a result there is much more part-time work available. You don’t have the expectation of 90-hour weeks anymore.”

Rewriting the rules, however, has not been easy.

“We have no clue what it’s going to be like when we become a working mother,” said Susan Wenner Jackson, one of the founders of the website Working Moms Against Guilt, because few women do any pre-planning. “It completely blows your mind and you have to put the pieces back together.”

Many working moms suddenly find themselves making sacrifices, whether at home or in their jobs. But such sacrifices don't equate to career failures in their eyes.

Kelly McCarthy, an attorney with Sideman & Bancroft in San Francisco and mother to a 1-year old son named Finn, believes she has a successful and fulfilling career.

“I have made it work with a perfect storm of luck, circumstance and planning,” she said.

McCarthy and her husband approach parenting as a partnership, sharing child care and household duties. She chose to work for a smaller law firm that’s more accommodating to her needs instead of a big firm. McCarthy and her husband also live in a town near family that can help out.

And take Julie Rocco, 38, and Julie Levine, 40. They were both established engineers and managers at Ford Motor Company before they became moms. Together, they broached the idea of doing a job-share arrangement even though it wasn’t common at their level.

The Julies, as they’re known at Ford, share all job tasks and share all information about their job, which is overseeing the Ford Explorer product program. They have conference calls every night to keep up to date, and both work in the office on Wednesdays so they can connect with each other and their team.

“This is not a free ride. We work very hard,” said Rocco. And Levine added, “We’re both aspiring women who want to keep moving up.”

Eve Tahmincioglu writes the weekly "Your Career" column for msnbc.com and chronicles workplace issues in her blog, CareerDiva.net.

Explainer: Tales from the mommy track

  • Image: Kelly McCarthy and son, Finn
    Courtesy of Kelly McCarthy

    A growing number of working women are defining success on their own terms. While their career trajectories seem atypical, and they’ve made job decisions based on their family — something which would have doomed most corporate climbers in the past — it works for them.

  • Kelly McCarthy

    Image: Kelly McCarthy and son, Finn
    Courtesy of Kelly McCarthy

    Kelly McCarthy is an attorney with Sideman & Bancroft in San Francisco. She is also mother of a 1-year-old son, Finn. She said she opted to work at a smaller law firm that's more accommodating to her needs as a working parent, and she finds her career fulfilling. “I have made it work with a perfect storm of luck, circumstance and planning,” she said.

  • Tricia Kagerer

    Image: Tricia Kagerer
    Courtesy of Tricia Kagerer

    Tricia Kagerer, 45, is vice president of risk management for C.F. Jordan Construction. She has two children, ages 11 and 14. When she was offered the job with the Dallas-based construction company, she negotiated flexible hours so she could pick up and drop off her kids at day care and school.

  • Lisa Depew

    Image: Lisa Depew and son
    Courtesy of Lisa Depew

    After her first son was born in 2005, Lisa Depew, a technical lead for Intel, proposed working a part-time schedule. Now the 34-year-old working mother has two young boys, and as they've gotten older, she has ramped up her work schedule. She now puts in a 40-hour week, working Mondays from home. “Could my career have advanced faster? Probably,” said Depew. “But would I have changed anything? No.”

  • Julie Levine and Julie Rocco

    Image: Julie Levine and Julie Rocco
    Courtesy of Ford Motor Company

    Send a text message to either Julie Levine or Julie Rocco’s cell phone, and both phones will buzz simultaneously. Levine (left), 40, and Julie Rocco, 38, were both established engineers and managers at Ford Motor Company before they became moms. Together, they broached the idea of doing a job-share arrangement, even though it wasn’t common at their level. Together, they are responsible for overseeing the Ford Explorer product program. The keep each other up to date nightly via conference call, and both work in the office on Wednesdays so they can connect with each other and their team. “We’re both aspiring women who want to keep moving up,” said Levine.

Video: Are working women penalized for motherhood?

  1. Closed captioning of: Are working women penalized for motherhood?

    >>> this morning on "today's working woman" is there a penalty for being a working mom? according to recent studies women with children earn significantly less than their male and childless female counterparts. "today" national correspondent amy robach has more on all this.

    >> good morning, meredith. it is a question millions of working mothers ask, am i being penalized for having a family. one chicago woman said it happened to her and that she was fired because of it. it is a scene that plays out all across america, as in this scene from "desperate housewives."

    >> because i got this thing -- good god this is not about your kids again, is it?

    >> reporter: the working mom having to choose between work and family. dina lockwood of chicago , illinois, knew what she had to do with her 4-year-old daughter lily had an eye infection.

    >> my daughter had pink eye , so i called in to work. they told me it was no problem we'd reschedule a meeting that i had in the office. well, a half hour later they called me back up and said, a few other people and the owner and told me that, i could either resign or i could remain with or without cause.

    >> reporter: dina said she just kept asking why.

    >> they said it's just not working out. and i said you certainly can't fire me because my daughter has pink eye . and they said i need to return my wlaptop and my cell phone immediately.

    >> reporter: dina lockwood hired an attorney who took her case to the chicago commission on human relations . the commission ruled in her favor and awarded her more than $215,000, plus attorney's fees. dena lockwood 's case is extreme, but her lawyer, ruth majors, says working moms are often discriminated against.

    >> i do think that a lot of people are sort of sketching back and taking a look at this situation and starting to understand that maybe the reason they're not being treated the same as their colleagues is because employers have a false perception that people that have children won't have the same level of commitment to their jobs.

    >> reporter: marissa is a mom of two and runs executivemoms.com. she says cases like dena 's are important because they raise awareness .

    >> it's such an akwreejious example that it will help bring these cases to light and even if they're few and far between get us all thinking about this a little harder and make sure that we all work towards a culture where such instances won't be allowed.

    >> reporter: four years later, lily, now 8, is still shocked by what happened to her mom.

    >> my mom got fired. it doesn't make any sense.

    >> reporter: now, dena lockwood 's former employer declined to comment, referring us to papers filed in her case that claim she was fired for excessive absence from work and failure to perform her duties sufficiently. the company is going to court to try and overturn that $250,000 award. a preliminary hearing is actually set for today. meredith, back to you.

    >> amy, thank you so much. so what can a frustrated working mom do? jean chatzky is "today's" financial editor. cindy levy is editor in chief of "glamour" magazine and susan johnson is vice president of tali techlt management. cindy , that's an extreme case of what happened when a mom has to choose between her job and her child. extreme but it's also real. the question is how real.

    >> it is extreme. and thank goodness for that. but, yeah, the statistics do show that there is this so-called motherhood penalty still at work. and they put it at about 5% to 10% of your wages per child. in fact, experts will tell you that there really is not that much of a gender gap anymore between men and women if you look at women who don't have kids. there's a parenting gap as women who do have kids who make less money in general than other workers. and, some of this is about choice. you take time off, you work part time . but some of it is about a perception that you don't want to hire the woman with children because she's going to be less committed.

    >> that person said.

    >> exactly. that's the attitude that we want to change.

    >> a woman said she wants to work part-time, full-time, or work from home , what does the management here?

    >> i think it's the short-sighted manager that hears that as a problem. forward-thinking companies will look at flexible work arrangements as a double value. documentation shows that companies that offer flexible work benefits get better work productivity and better employee engagement . i spoke with woman one at pitney beaus who is a working mom and the extra hour she gets from not commuting to work, she is able to serve a hot breakfast, put her child to school and put together the same if not more work to her responsibility.

    >> i think it's more work in general. i've worked a flexible schedule for the last 15 years. much of it for a corporation. and when you're a working mom given that opportunity to work from home , you overproduce. because you know, you know that you're setting the bar for all of the other women that are there.

    >> yet most businesses, as you said, are not paying equal pay to those --

    >> well, i don't know that it's not paying equal pay . i think we really have to focus on those breaks that women take from the workforce. think about it, every salary that you get hinges off the most recent salary that you got. so you take time off, somebody else stays there, they get three raises, you come back, you didn't get those three races, of course your salary is going to be lower.

    >> and also i think you pointed out that women are often their worst advocates when it comes to asking --

    >> we feel guilty if we have that flexible work schedule. i did this for " smart money " magazine. i didn't ask for a raise for years and i was overproducing because i felt like i was given favored nation status already.

    >> right. you feel very grateful.

    >> and guilty.

    >> this is what i'm contributing to the company.

    >> exactly.

    >> and there are other issues, besides not getting the salary, jean, there are other issues women need to be aware of.

    >> well, retirement benefits are a key issue. women end up with only about 60 prpz of what men have at retirement because we take those breaks. the key word is something called a spousal i.r.a. if you're out of the workforce, in the workforce you can still contribute to an i.r.a. every year and you should.

    >> and susan very quickly, companies that are corporations run by women , you see less of this happening? is there more sensitivity in those situations? i don't mean to play the sexist card here, i'm just curious.

    >> no, i don't think so. again i think it's all about the foresightedness of the employer. if they're smart they'll look at it as a workplace engagement opportunity.

    >> okay, jean chatzky, cindy levy, susan johnson , thank you so

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