More moms prefer part-time work

Sharon Lerman thought she could work full time and be a great mom when she first had children. Then reality hit.

"Before you have kids, it's hard to know how difficult it will be to meet the demands of the workplace and have the flexibility to provide for the needs of children," she said Thursday.

So Lerman worked part time until her oldest child, who is now 21, was in high school.

Like so many other working moms, she was not surprised to learn that 60 percent of working mothers in a Pew Research Center study said that working part time outside the home would be the ideal. That's up from 48 percent in 1997.

Only 21 percent of working moms said a full-time job would be the ideal, down from 32 percent in 1997. Nineteen percent in the current survey preferred not working at all.

And although most working moms said they would prefer to work part time, labor statistics cited in the study say that only 24 percent actually do.

The changing attitudes among women reflect changes and pressures in the workplace, such as company cuts, outsourcing, job insecurity and the need for more flexibility by working women, experts in the field and mothers themselves said.

"I think this is a reaction, not against the 40-hour week, but the 50- or 60-hour week and the insanity of the work schedule and inflexibility of employers," said Ellen Bravo, a longtime activist for working women who teaches women's studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She testified last month at a congressional hearing on making the workplace more family-friendly.

"What women are saying is that they want more breathing room," she said.

The survey did not ask why women said they would rather work part time.

"In 1997, I think more women felt that to be taken seriously, there was pressure to work full time," Bravo said. But the workplace hasn't changed enough, she said, and it's the women who still bear the prime responsibility for the children and who have to try to manage both work and family.

According to the study, 72 percent of fathers said their ideal situation was a full-time job. Bravo said she believed men said that because they feel they have no options.

"Men who don't work full time aren't taken seriously," she said.

Amy Ehrlich, 40, who lives in Cedarburg, Wis., and has three children ranging in age from 3 to 9, works part time as an obstetrics nurse and works with the La Leche League, an organization supporting breast-feeding mothers, as well.

"I can pick and choose shifts - weekends or evenings - if my husband is here to watch the kids," she said. "I can't picture another career that I could have entered and enjoyed and found the flexibility I needed. That's partly why I went into it. I couldn't picture myself working full time when I had kids, even back then."

She also sees what many other mothers face.

"With the first baby, the moms I work with plan to go back to work. Second baby, they usually try to look for part time or cut their hours down or find another job that's more flexible.

"By the third baby, it's too much. They don't want to do it anymore."

Cheryl Maranto, an associate professor of management at Marquette University, said what most parents want was flexibility to take off to go to a doctor's appointment or a child's play.

"To some extent, I think part-time work is seen as a proxy for flexibility," she said, "and I think that's part of what's driving the results."

The trend toward leaner staffing puts more pressure on employees to do more, she said. E-mail and other technology also raise expectations that people are available for work any time, even at home.

Lerman, who has master's degrees in counseling and business, runs Working Innovations, a firm that works with employers and employees on these issues.

She said it was more challenging these days to get companies to think about providing more flexible options, and many employees fear that asking for flexibility or part-time work will indicate a lack of commitment to the workplace.

"Flexibility creates a sense of trust, and trust is one of the most important aspects of a successful workplace. But many organizations don't quite understand that," she said.

Tanya Ayala, 27, the mother of three children ages 9, 7 and 5, works 20 hours a week at the City of Milwaukee treasurer's office because of the flexibility it affords.

"Most moms I know work full time, and I see how they struggle," she said. "For many, it's financial, because a lot are single moms. I'm kind of fortunate." Her husband is a correctional officer.

Still, Ayala said she was thinking of going to work full time in the fall, when her children are all in school.

The Pew study was based on telephone interviews conducted nationally with 2,020 adults this year. The margin of error was 3 percentage points for the group as a whole and 8 percentage points for working mothers.

(Milwaukee Journal Sentinel correspondent Joanne Cleaver contributed to this report.)