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Technology — and a me-too push from men — help quest for flexible schedule


Automotive News -- September 13, 2010 - 12:01 am ET
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Juggling day care pickups, soccer schedules, household tasks and work that goes beyond 9-to-5 has long been a struggle for working women. In decades past, the auto industry took that to an extreme.

It's still a challenge, especially the higher the climb up the corporate ladder. But helping the cause is that men, especially younger men, want to go to those soccer games, too — or they now get stuck at home when the sitter doesn't show up.

"What's funny is some of the things that have historically been treated as women's issues, like work-life balance, really are everybody's issues," said Jeneanne Hanley, Lear Corp. vice president. "Everybody wants a quality of life. Everybody wants to work smarter."

The business must be rethought for all, Hanley said.

The traditional caregiver role can create conflicts in an industry that demands 12-hour-plus days or midnight shifts.

Linda Cash, a Ford manufacturing executive, said: "We're the ones who cook dinner, keep up the house, take the kids to school, take the dog to the vet and nurture everyone.

"But the hours in the auto industry are the problem we run into," she said. "I'm in really early, and I'm home really late. So how am I going to balance this?"

After getting stuck in Frankfurt on Sept. 11, 2001, away from her husband and son, Vicki Poponi, then at supplier Garrett, decided she needed to stop the constant travel. She left the workplace for four years and adopted a baby daughter.

When her daughter was 2, she realized she needed more mental stimulation and joined Honda. Working or not, Poponi said, she was always in a state of guilt. But she felt happier back on the job.

"I have more fun, and I am a better mom because I am happier," Poponi said. "But I think women are torn between role identities. You have to make your own choice about what's important."

Some found flexibility when they most needed it.Susan Scarola was a single mom with a 9-year-old daughter when she started at dealership group DCH in the mid-'80s. When her daughter was going through tough teen experiences, Scarola recalls telling her boss she had to quit.

"He would just say, 'Go home, do what you need to do, come back,'" said Scarola, now vice chairman.

At one point, Scarola wanted to work some days from home. DCH was willing. That's easier in the corporate office, but Scarola now looks for ways to accommodate employees in DCH dealerships. A young mother in one store's Internet sales department now works from home.

"Why not? You're sitting at a computer," Scarola said. "What difference does it make? You don't need to be in the dealership every day."

Technology is helping the cause. Several of the leading women recalled being able to participate in crucial work meetings while out on family business because of laptops and audio conferencing.

Some manufacturers have programs to aid the balancing act. Toyota offers alternate Fridays off to people who work 80 hours the prior nine days, said Tracey Doi, CFO of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.

That doesn't mean there aren't trade-offs. Marsha Winegarden, a Ford product executive, said: "I never missed a parent-teacher conference, but do you get to see the kids take their first steps? No.

"But on balance, I did get to participate in the really big things."

A good support structure is key.

Desi Ujkashevic, a Ford engineering executive with four children, often is asked by younger colleagues, male and female, how she manages. Her answer: Lots of help from a husband with a less-demanding job.

Said Ujkashevic: "My perspective is you can do anything you want as long as you want it bad enough and you're willing to set up a system to work — whether that system is your spouse or significant other or you decide when to do what."

Dave Guilford, Jamie LaReau and Mark Rechtin contributed to this report

You can reach Amy Wilson at awilson@crain.com.

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