Gender discrimination in the labor market manifests in a variety of forms. For decades, researchers have documented asymmetry in the types of work performed, remuneration for labor, and workplace climates for men and women. The concept of the mommy track emerged in the late 1980s, ostensibly as a solution for the glass ceiling effect that prevented all but a small minority of professional women from achieving high-level managerial positions in the corporate sector. The mommy track would comprise one level of a dual labor market among women and function as a formally institutionalized mechanism to distinguish between “career-primary” and “career-and-family” orientations.
Business analyst Felice Schwartz proposed that aspiring professional women should openly declare to prospective employers their intentions with regard to current or future motherhood. Women who choose the mommy track receive less corporate investment in their training and fewer advancement opportunities in exchange for the freedom of prioritizing child care and the purported distractions it presents for working women. Career-primary women would forgo child-bearing and prioritize professional advancement; they could expect corporate recognition of their differential time investments through more challenging work assignments and occupational mobility. Given the empirical reality of sex segregation in the labor market that derives, in part, from the concomitant presumptions that all women will establish families and that women are always primary caretakers, the formalization of choice for women would, ideally, eliminate some level of occupational discrimination.
During the ensuing years, the concept of mommy track changed to refer more generally to both women’s self-imposed limitations to career mobility that result from interrupted labor force participation for child rearing and the continued gender bias against women that frequently restricts their opportunities in the labor market. The recent use of the term mommy trackers refers to the increasing number of largely white, middle-class, college-educated women who express the desire to delay or interrupt their careers to raise children.
Critics of the concept of mommy tracking (by choice or default) suggest that highlighting women’s family roles obscures the extent to which men simultaneously participate in paid labor and bear family responsibilities and, thus, unfairly penalizes working women. Few suggest a parallel concept of a “daddy track” with any seriousness. Moreover, the mommy track concept presumes that women are unable to compartmentalize paid work and family responsibilities or are less proficient at balancing work and family than men. Finally, organizations that practice mommy tracking do not recognize the centrality of family life to all employees, and the extent to which facilitating work-life balance enhances worker productivity and the quality of work experiences for women and men.
- Moen, Phyllis and Patricia Roehling. 2004. The Career Mystique: Cracks in the American Dream. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
- Padavic, Irene and Barbara Reskin. 2002. Men and Women at Work. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge.
- Schwartz, Felice. 1989. “Management Women and the New Facts of Life.” Harvard Business Review (January-February):65-76.
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