Sarah Van Nortwick, CMP, knew that she had found the right company when she was hired as a meeting planner in the Sacramento office of Ernst & Young in 2000. “They hired me when I was big and pregnant. I brought it up in the interview, and they said it wasn't an issue. I thought that was a good sign,” says the mother of a daughter, now 6, and a son, 11.
Now, 6H years later, Van Nortwick says emphatically, “I have no intention of ever going anywhere else in my career lifetime, knock on wood. There's room to grow here within meeting and event planning, or if I wanted to — which I don't — there are opportunities in other departments.”
There are good reasons why she is so loyal: At E&Y, she has been promoted twice, first from planning local meetings to planning regional ones, and again, this August, to her current position as senior events manager. “I pursued this promotion vigorously,” she says, “but I was definitely supported on both sides — both from the group I left and the group I was moving to. They knew my work goals and helped me to find the right position for those goals.”
One reason that she wanted the change is that in her new position managing all client events in the Pacific Northwest region, she will travel about half as often as she did last year (although she still expects to travel once or twice a week).
“Last year was pretty tough,” she says, noting that with sole responsibility for more than 100 events and working as part of a team effort on another 15 or so, she was on the road about 100 days.
Flexible work arrangements are so common at E&Y that they're simply known by their acronym: FWA. This can mean anything from flex time to job sharing, telecommuting, even part-time and seasonal work. Van Nortwick started her FWA about a year and a half ago when she “went to my supervisor and said I'd love to not have to send my kids to after-school care. We talked about options and came up with the idea that I would work in the office from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and then leave to pick up my kids at school. I bring them home and then continue working at home for the rest of the afternoon. It's fabulous.”
Not only did the flex time work out well in her former position, but she was able to take it with her when she was promoted. “I was already on this flexible schedule, and I just told them I'd like to keep it,” she says. The response? No problem.
It's easy to see why Van Nortwick isn't planning to change companies. She works hours that make sense for her family and her life; she has a challenging position that she loves with room for growth; and she works with and for people who respect that work is only one part of a balanced life.
These intangibles aren't always so easy to come by — but things are getting better, at least in the meetings industry. Five years ago, Meeting Professionals International conducted a benchmark leadership survey as part of the Women's Leadership Initiative, spearheaded by Christine Duffy, president and CEO of Maritz Travel Co., 2005 MPI chairwoman, and mother of two. Nearly two-thirds of the female meeting planners surveyed said they had adopted a non-9-to-5 approach in an effort to maintain equilibrium between personal and professional responsibilities. Approaches included working flexible hours, job sharing, telecommuting, and working part time.
Duffy emphasizes that such benefits aren't just a matter of accommodation. “The more flexibility companies can provide, the more we can retain the talent that we're trying to draw to the industry. It's not just in this industry that companies are investing money and getting creative trying to keep women who get to a certain level and are torn between balancing their family life and careers. It's even more demanding in fields such as ours with demands for travel.”
Give and Take
One way that Crystal Page, CMP, deals with the travel is by taking advantage of the flexible work schedule that is encouraged at the global consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, where she works as senior consultant, meeting planner in the McLean, Va., office. “If I'm on a program for several days, I can come home and take some time off. It's improved my work-life balance considerably,” says the mother of a son, 8, and a daughter, 11.
While Page typically works 9-to-5, she adjusts her hours when she's working on an event, which can range from 25 to 50 a year. Of course, that's anything but the case when she's on-site, which is usually three or four times a year. “I just came off a program a week ago when I was working from first thing in the morning until late at night for five straight days,” she says. “Companies have to understand the nature of what we do. We can be on-site for 14 hours or more a day, so there has to be some give and take.”
Page says the key at Booz Allen Hamilton is that the company has “done a good job of establishing a work-life credo. There's an understanding with management that you do what you need to do for your client, but you control your own destiny.” Which translates to working from home on a given day or taking off a few hours or a day for something involving the children. “I can take off if my kids go on a field trip or if there's a parent-teacher conference,” Page says. “You know what your responsibilities are and what needs to happen, and you just make it happen.”
Still, she remembers when it wasn't that way. “I've been at Booz Allen for about 2H years, but I've seen in my 12 years as a meeting planner that there was a time when there were not a lot of creative options for working mothers who were meeting planners. That's all part of what drew me into this firm.”
While Booz Allen Hamilton does walk the walk, plenty of companies only give lip service to the idea of flexibility. That was the experience of one planner at a large company who started working from home about five years ago. “I was told I'd be expected to do about 25 percent more work since there were no interruptions at home — no people popping into the office, no going out for coffee, etc.,” she says. Along with that heavy expectation, she had a boss who “called me every morning at 7 a.m. to make sure I was working, but then she'd yell at me when she found out I was working at 9 p.m. to make deadlines. It was crazy — I couldn't win.”
The Eye of the Beholder
Just as the perceptions about working from home and flexible hours are slowly shifting, there have been subtle changes in the way that working mothers in general are perceived. At previous positions, for example, Van Nortwick says, “I was very much on my own in balancing work and caring for my family. We were discouraged from even talking about our kids — like it was a weakness to have a family.”
And if her child was ill? “I felt that I was forced to lie and say that I was sick, rather than my child. It was really uncomfortable, but I didn't feel that I had other options.”
While such cultures still exist in some companies, others are creating networks for working mothers. At Booz Allen Hamilton, for example, they are encouraged to communicate with each other through the Parents Forum, a support group for parents that provides education, information, resources, and support with monthly meetings, a newsletter, and a Web site.
Similarly, site selection firm HelmsBriscoe has an online Moms Group, “where we can discuss how to make a home office effective or how to balance our work and families or different career strategies,” says Tara Bass, regional manager at HelmsBriscoe, based in Omaha, Neb. “The company has seen a need for all of us to connect. This past July, an entire session of the annual meeting was dedicated to the HB moms.” MPI, too, featured an education session specifically for women at this year's Professional Education Conference on “creative ways to integrate career, family, and self.”
The Bottom Line
Unfortunately, despite the supportive attitudes and growing flexibility in many companies, women's salaries still lag far behind those of men. A 2005 MPI study of 1,139 meeting planners showed a compensation gender gap of 29 percent, with the average base salary for male meeting planners coming in at $73,833 compared to $57,394 for female planners.
“Our work is clearly not finished,” says Duffy, “and MPI is still focused on ways to help women move up within their organizations.”
Corporate America has also jumped on that bandwagon, with some larger companies adding programs for career guidance and mentoring, many specifically designed for women. At American Express in New York, more than half of female staffers receive management or leadership training. Booz Allen Hamilton also has a mentoring program: “There are plenty of opportunities to communicate and get suggestions for how to do things,” says Page.
At E&Y, Van Nortwick says, “It's very much part of the corporate culture here to encourage people to look at all sorts of opportunities. Our supervisors are coached to encourage their counselees to pursue new challenges.”
She notes that “being a working mother has had no effect on my ability to move up here.
“It might be surprising,” she adds, “but we're actually encouraged to have real lives.”
For more on work-life balance, read the October cover story at meetingsnet.com. Search our archives for “Balancing Act.”
Beyond Flex Time
While a flexible schedule goes a long way toward creating a friendly work environment, here are a few ways that companies are upping the ante:
BOOZ ALLEN HAMILTON has an on-site daycare with a drop-in option for when regular daycare falls through, and a Holiday Kids Club for three government holidays when kids are not in school.
BANK OF AMERICA has a Snowy Day backup care program in 10 cities for when schools are closed, and staffers who earn less than $34,000 a year are eligible for childcare reimbursements.
ABOTT LABS has a formal policy that allows employees to take sick days to care for an ill child. For employees with older children, the company holds a Summer Camp Fair and a 'tweens program called “Summer of Service.”
ERNST & YOUNG offers a concierge service that employees can call for free help finding anything from a good veterinarian to tickets to an event. Every office features a privacy room for breast-feeding mothers, as well as a corporate lactation program.
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