Finding flextime on Wall Street

Many companies want to offer employees family-time flexibility but just can't seem to make it work.

Published August 10, 2006 9:55PM (EDT)

Playing catch-up on news from earlier this week, I came across this solid New York Times feature on Wall Street's work/family blues. I'm sorry I missed it the first time around because piece was pretty evenhanded; it neither faulted companies for discriminatory practices (though writer Jenny Anderson did flag a few egregious examples of corporate gender discrimination) nor mothers for opting out. Instead, it worked from the premise that Wall Street companies want to hire women and that most women, including mothers, want to work. The stumbling block, of course, is flexibility -- most corporations haven't figured out how to make erratic parenting schedules jibe with a 24/7 work environment. "It's hard to be in a client-service industry where you are on call to clients," Goldman Sachs global leadership and diversity managing director Melinda Wolfe told the Times. "We don't have a good paradigm as to how we can repackage that work."

As an example of a failed attempt at repackaging, the article offered a flextime anecdote that'll feel familiar to anyone who has tried juggling work and family: When investment banker Elizabeth Stoeber downshifted to a more administrative position to spend more time with her young children, "'off' days ended up as afternoons in the park doing business on her cellphone while her son begged her to play." And when the time came for company cutbacks, her part-time position was one of the first to go.

Anderson gets points for noting that women don't just leave demanding jobs to have babies. Lack of flexibility can also make high-powered careers unmanageable for employees who care for aging or ailing family members or who have other personal limitations.

Still, some old-schoolers will always reply to work/family concerns with a reflexive rejection of women in the workplace: Traditionally, men didn't get to choose when or how long to work, the argument goes. Why should women get special treatment? Companies have to remain competitive!

But work/family issues aren't just women's issues; they're also workers' issues. As the Times observed, increasing numbers of men are also asking for flexible scheduling. The challenge, as Wolfe points out, is for companies to repackage that work for a more diverse employee base. Whether the solution is creative management, changes to company and client expectations, or some as-yet-undiscovered silver bullet, one thing is for sure: The present-day solution to work/family conflict is not dividing those responsibilities by gender.

And the thing is, at least in theory, many companies agree. "Women remain the minority sex on the Street ... [but] the Street says it wants to change all of this," Anderson reported. "Not simply because it is socially expedient but because the financial world needs a diverse work force to make money and court clients -- especially when clients themselves are not homogeneous."

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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