Wall Street tries a better deal for working mothers

A raft of law suits has forced US banks to take motherhood more seriously, writes Betsy Jelisavcic

Araft of successful sex discrimination cases against US securities houses are forcing Wall Street companies to improve their treatment of working mothers.

Over the past few years Salomon Smith Barney, Merrill Lynch Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan have added emergency day care for employees' children and subsidised maternity leave to their list of company perks. Some have even opened lactation rooms for new mothers.

The developments across the Atlantic will be welcomed by mothers working in the City of London where long hours clash with the duties of motherhood. The whole of UK industry received a wake-up call on the issue of women's rights at work last week when Annette Cowley, a 40-year-old single mother, won a sex discrimination case against South African Airlines because she claimed a 16-hour working day interfered with her life as a mother.

Christy Clock, 37, an employee with Salomon Smith Barney in New York was not fazed when her one-year-old son's nursery recently closed for a day. Instead she took him to the company's own in-house creche. The firm provides 20 days of child care a year at $15 a day. "This saves me from worrying about whether I'm going to have to call in sick or take a day off,'' Ms Clock said. Although Wall Street has been dominated by the male ethos, and has promoted few women to senior positions, experts say a shortage of qualified employees and high-profile sex bias suits are forcing brokerage firms to polish up their act.

"With securities firms, there is a growing sense that profitability is down to the people you hire, so you'd better keep your good female employees,'' said Ellen Galinsky, president of the New York-based Families and Work Institute (FWI). "The critical factor is how your boss treats you and how accommodating the company culture is.''

"Wall Street isn't very open to women or mothers, but some inroads have been made,'' said Deborah Wilburn, executive editor of Working Mother magazine, which publishes an annual ranking of the 100 companies it considers the most enlightened.

Progress has been uneven, critics say. In the US, 54 per cent of finance, insurance and estate agents provided full or partial pay for family leave, compared with 66 per cent of manufacturing, construction, and agricultural companies, according to a survey by the FWI.

Legislation in the US, the birthplace of the feminist movement, is roughly on a par with that of the UK, where Stephen Byers, the Trade and Industry Secretary this week announced plans to give working parents 13 weeks' unpaid leave.

US companies with 50 or more employees are required to give employees 12 weeks off for the birth or adoption of a child under the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act - though they don't have to pay them.

Women make up only 9 per cent of securities firms' corporate officers, according to a 1998 survey by Catalyst, a non-profit-making organisation representing professional women.

However, sex-bias cases against Merrill Lynch and Salomon Smith Barney have nudged brokerages to improve their schemes for working mothers, according to Dr Mary Mattis of Catalyst.

Salomon Smith Barney was sued in 1996 for allegedly discriminating against its female brokers, and tolerating a certain amount of humiliation on the trading floor. The firm settled by agreeing to use non-industry mediation to resolve claims and to spend $15m (pounds 9m) over four years to hire and retain female professionals.

Salomon Smith Barney's schemes for working mothers now include 13 weeks of fully paid maternity leave, lactation rooms and emergency child care. "We want to make sure we're competitive with what's going on in our industry,'' said Joan Walsh, director of employee relations and training at the company.

But the risk of becoming what Americans call "mummy-tracked'' continues to be a problem, said Barbara Bergmann, a professor of economics. Some bosses assume a working mother's loyalty is to her family, and that can cost her the chance of promotion and a pay rise.

Women in small branch offices, where corporate policies have not caught on, are most vulnerable to discrimination, said Marybeth Cremin, a former Merrill broker who worked at an independent brokerage office.

Ms Cremin, a mother of five who left Merrill in 1997, said her boss forced her to give up her position in accounts in favour of an administrative job after her fourth child "because he thought you can't combine a family and a career".

Merrill Lynch, meanwhile, is settling a discrimination case in which Ms Cremin was a plaintiff. The company now offers 13 weeks of maternity leave at full pay, back-up child care at five of its offices, and lactation rooms at its largest offices. As part of the settlement, Merrill agreed to private mediation for the discrimination claims and to establish a new system for distributing accounts of brokers who leave the firm.

Other Wall Street firms have followed with family-friendly policies for full-time employees: Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette now offer 12 weeks of fully paid maternity leave, Goldman Sachs, four months, and JP Morgan, three months. All also offer back-up day care. JP Morgan and Goldman have lactation rooms.

These schemes lead to greater profits as a result of improved productivity, advocates claim. Workers are more focused and loyal, according to Michelle Sagalyn of DCC in Westport, Connecticut, a consultancy which has set up family schemes for 800 companies.

DCC said some companies reported earning $3 for each $1 spent on lactation facilities for new mothers, Ms Sagalyn said. Breast-fed children were generally healthier, so parents took fewer days off tending to sick youngsters, she said.

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