A few women at the top isn't enough reform

Last month, news broke that international consulting giant McKinsey & Co. is recruiting moms back from stay-at-home status.

In a Wall Street Journal Web video, reporter Leslie Kwoh said, "From what we understand, this is really an effort for them to get back some of the talent that they lost ... as women left to become mothers."

Sadly, the hopeful-triumphant gleam in Kwoh's eyes was all too familiar.

I say sadly, because it's been 20 years since I've been reporting such hopeful developments for working mothers. I interviewed the originator of the "mommy track" idea, Felice Schwartz, back in 1993. Sadly, we are still having the same discussions. And, sadly, we've learned very little.

Even if McKinsey is successful at luring MBA moms back from the home front. Exactly how many moms are we talking about? A few dozen? A few hundred?

The numbers are small, and the potential benefits are reserved for the highly educated - not to mention, those women who had enough financial security to leave work in the first place. That is, they are very likely married, and likely married to a fast-track partner.

Are these ranks seeming more infinitesimal by the minute? McKinsey alumnae, with kids and high-earner husbands? Whoa. Stop the revolution!

In fact, we have been settling for years for tokenism - the vision of a few women at the top as a signifier that we can have it all, every one of us.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, is one of the successful working mothers we're looking to today. Her recently published "Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead" advises young women to emphasize career and believe in themselves, so that by the time they have children, they'll have a career that's worth staying for - and bargaining power to make the work-life combination livable.

That's fine in theory, but how many chief operating officers does Facebook need? I wonder if women - and parents in general - wouldn't be better served if Sandberg were to argue for changing the practices of the workplace.

Marissa Mayer is another symbol for working mothers, having accepted the chief executive spot at Yahoo a month before giving birth to her first child. She has subsequently revoked the work-at-home privileges of her staff, which appears anti-parent, and she has built a nursery next to her office to care for her own newborn.

Talk about bargaining power.

I don't second-guess Mayer's decision to bring her staff back into the office. She knows more about the business needs of Yahoo - the grandfather of the Internet - than I do. However, perhaps when she's done rejuvenating this granddaddy, she could get around to opening a day care center for the employees.

Schwartz had a lot of good ideas for working parents that didn't deserve to be buried under the derisive name "mommy track." That wasn't Schwartz's term; it was a name given by journalists and feminists who were aghast at her suggestion that women couldn't combine ladder-climbing and child-raising. She published a study, "Management Women and the New Facts of Life," in the January-February 1989 issue of the Harvard Business Review noting that companies were losing women midcareer - an effect that is still blamed for the dismal number of female chief executives.

Schwartz suggested, for employees who desired it, offering part-time and flexible schedules, shared jobs, telecommuting and even the possibility of leaving work altogether and returning years later. It's time to revive those ideas for working parents. A few token moms at the top don't represent enough change for the majority.

This essay was first published in Newsday.