'Working Mother' turns 30: Mag recognized growing earning power of moms

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When Working Mother magazine debuted 30 years ago this month, employers believed women worked to pay for the "extras" that made life nicer, not to build a career, support their families or find personal fulfillment -- and paid them less as a result.

In its early days, the magazine reflected that. A lot has changed since then, for working moms and the publication that targets them.

"We used to do stories about saving 'pin money' to spend on Christmas gifts," said Carol Evans, president of Working Mother Media, which sells 825,000 copies of the magazine eight times a year and estimates its readership at 2 million per issue.

"That persisted for some time, until it was proven again and again that working moms were an economic powerhouse. They controlled the household budgets, and they were picking the car, not the color.

"They spent on themselves to improve their image and fit in professionally. Those jobs afforded a higher lifestyle for their children, with the ability to pick the neighborhood and schools they wanted. But you needed two incomes to do it. Everything shifted."

The number of working moms has almost doubled, from 16 million in 1979 to 30 million today, and women make up nearly half the work force. Many are the primary breadwinners. They've made steady inroads into just about every profession, moving up the ladder, into executive suites and forming networks to bring other women along.

Working moms used their clout to help enact family-friendly laws and corporate policies, from the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 to paid parental leave and workplace flexibility. Working Mother began highlighting and encouraging these changes in 1986 with its annual Best Companies for Working Mothers edition.

Working women advance over 30 years

1979: Working Mother magazine launches

1981: Sandra Day O'Connor becomes the first working mom on the U.S. Supreme Court.

1986: The Best Companies for Working Mothers debuts.

1993: President Clinton signs the Family Medical Leave Act into law, guaranteeing up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave.

2008: Hillary Clinton makes 18 million cracks in the presidential glass ceiling.

2009: Congress passes the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

"We are constantly reinventing the magazine to stay ahead of our readers," Ms. Evans said. One of its founders, she worked there for the first 10 years, left for 12, then bought the publication in 2001. Last year she sold it to Bonnier Corp. of Sweden but still runs the operation.

For example, she said, "We used to not pay attention to part-time workers or those who dropped out for a few years. Boomer moms were all in or all out. It was very black and white, and the two didn't get along very well.

"Then we started to embrace all kinds of working mothers. Generation X, for example, wanted to move in and out of the workplace. Flexibility didn't just mean going in early and leaving early. It meant that you could turn down a promotion because of home responsibilities but still be ready for it in five years."

Working Mother also dropped the Guilt Department, a regular column that used to explore the many reasons employed moms felt bad about the work/family dynamic.

"After 15 years, we recognized that we still felt guilty, but we didn't need to train ourselves on it in every issue."

In addition, the magazine realized that work/family issues changed as the children grew older and started tracking articles accordingly, beginning with moms of newborns up to teens.

"We'd never looked that closely at how working affects every age stage," she said.

Gone are the "from den mother to working mother" stories about the re-entry mom who'd stayed home for 15 years.

"We don't do those anymore," Ms. Evans said. "Seventy-two percent of all moms go back to work now. It's the norm. They don't need articles about how to dress, do their hair or put on makeup for the first time in years. Moms are so hip and fashionable, it's hard to keep up with them."

In the workplace, she said, child care is no longer seen as a purely personal issue for employees. Companies realize that workers are more productive when they're not worried about their kids and have responded with on-site or near-site facilities or vouchers. In addition, there's more quality child care available than there was 30 years ago. Flexible arrangements, including part-time hours and telecommuting, are more and more common.

And moms who find their employers too rigid might just quit their jobs and open their own businesses.

On the other side of the coin, Ms. Evans said, is the rising stress caused by the economic downturn, cutbacks and layoffs.

"The hardest hit sectors are blue-collar manufacturing and white-collar sectors like banking and finance," she said. Because 80 percent of those laid off are men, moms are picking up the slack, even as they remain on the short end of the wage gap.

"Families have become very dependant on income from moms, which adds to the stress. They're also working longer hours because fewer people have to do the same amount of work."

And yet, the division of household labor remains highly uneven.

"Men are not necessarily picking up the slack at home," Ms. Evans said. "A new study showed that when men lose their jobs they sleep, watch TV and look for work. When women lose their jobs, they take care of the kids and the house and look for work."

Ms. Evans believes that Working Mother's annual Best Companies ranking has been influential in improving workplace conditions for moms.

"It's given companies a blueprint for how to treat working mothers so it works out best for both parties," she said. "They don't have to make it up from scratch. Women whose companies follow best practices perform better, have less stress, are healthier and more focused, so it's to the company's benefit."

The rankings have drawn huge amounts of attention to the top companies, and to the needs and strengths of working mothers.

"It's a way of shining the spotlight," Evans said.

And a far cry from pin money.

Sally Kalson can be reached at skalson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1610.


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