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Joanna Weiss

The right to a flexible workplace

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / March 23, 2011

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FIRST, THE good news: Things used to be worse, far worse, for women in business. Consider the story that Bentley University president Gloria Larson told 600 women professionals on Monday. As a young Federal Trade Commission lawyer in the late 1970s, Larson said, she once negotiated with a roomful of male lawyers from big Washington, D.C. firms. At one point, one of them casually said that he knew how to break an impasse: “Gloria and I could just go away together for the weekend.’’

In the audience at the Ad Club of Boston’s Women’s Leadership Forum, 600 women gasped. They could barely conceive of an era when that kind of behavior was accepted and unpunished. For young women entering the business world today, the colleagues are mostly well-behaved, the prospects promising, the expectations high.

And then things narrow — fast. As of last year, Larson told me later by phone, women held only 11 percent of the board seats and only 8.9 percent of the executive positions in Massachusetts’ 100 largest publicly-traded companies. Those numbers have been practically stagnant for years.

You can chalk some of the trouble up to sexism, and some of it to strategy. At Monday’s forum, some panelists noted that, compared to men, women in the corporate world are less likely to be explicit about their career goals or as good at self-promotion.

But women also exile themselves from the business hierarchy, with good reason: Once they have kids, they no longer want the constraints of corporate life. After her Federal Trade Commission stint, Larson worked for a white-shoe law firm that lost female employees in droves when they had children. If women did return to the workforce, Larson said, they wanted a job that didn’t involve a grueling daily grind.

Spurred by the recession, chastened by the numbers, some companies are soul-searching about that grind and its implications. With $4 million in donations, Bentley will open a Center for Women in Business later this spring, seeking ways to advance women’s leadership. Companies are increasingly using flexible work arrangements to attract and retain employees, and to save costs in a recession.

A few companies have embraced a radical form of flexibility: the “Results Only Work Environment’’ posits that when and where people work is irrelevant, so long as the work gets done. But far more often, a pliable schedule is a benefit reserved for a lucky few, or carved out on a case-by-case basis.

What if flexibility were a baseline expectation, instead? More and more of today’s college students — male and female — believe it should be, Larson said. And they’re far bolder than previous generations about asking what their companies will let them do, and when.

“They are looking for far more quality of life than we ever expected we were entitled to,’’ she said.

Millennials, today’s 18-to-29-year-olds, get plenty of knocks for their sense of entitlement. But on this one, they’re probably right. Flexibility does make life manageable for working parents, and it does breed genuine gratitude. But thinking of it as a benefit, rather than a right, can lead women to undercut themselves, to swap work-life balance for promotions or pay.

Perhaps we should be changing the ground rules instead, seeing flexibility as a point of pride — a way for employees to show off how much they can achieve in a crisis or a crunch. And we should view motherhood as a training ground, instead of a liability. When career consultant Mary Kaye helps stay-at-home moms return to the workforce, she advises them to turn their resume gaps into resume padding. Motherhood is the art of multitasking, after all. Running a school fundraiser requires a bevy of marketable skills.

And motherhood plus work? That’s accomplishment. These days, if a woman can successfully juggle a corporate workload with drop-offs, pickups, recitals, soccer games, and doctors’ appointments, she’s lucky to have her employer. But her employer is lucky to have her, too.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.