Setting a Low Bar

Every year, Working Mother magazine announces its much-anticipated "100 Best Companies." Employers leap to publicize their inclusion on the list, and it's routinely a best-selling issue. But is the "100 Best" -- and similar lists published by other magazines and organizations -- much more than public relations?

Large companies are already required by the Family and Medical Leave Act to provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave. In addition to meeting federal requirements, most businesses make the list with low- or no-cost policies and perks such as flex time, child-care resource directories, lactation rooms, and additional unpaid leave. Benefits such as paid family leave or free or reduced-cost child care are much rarer.

Most such "best employers" lists are compiled using self-reported data. While Working Mother says the information is fact checked, most companies do not make public the information the magazine says it examines, so there is no way to independently verify it. The magazine assigns a specific score and rank to every company that applies, and those numbers are kept private. "That enables them to go back and do some work without being publicly embarrassed," says Suzanne Riss, editor-in-chief of Working Mother. "We're not trying to say one company is better than the next."

Working Mother says an important criterion for selection is advancement of women (the company's "workforce profile"). Of the 18 firms in Working Mother's "Hall of Fame," most have only two or three women board members. The average "Hall of Fame" board of directors is more than 80 percent male. And on its 2005 list, Allstate, American Express, and General Mills were named top companies for women of color. At each, women of color made up 30 percent of newly hired hourly workers, but 0 percent of new executives.

It can be difficult to determine whether all employees are actually encouraged to take advantage of family-friendly policies. When the Harvard Business Review surveyed women college graduates, 35 percent of them thought they would be penalized for doing so. When Martha Burk examined "best employers" lists in her 2005 book, Cult of Power, she found that often "women get to the companies and find it's all so much hype," she says.

In fairness, several companies that appear on these lists are above average. The multinational accounting behemoth Ernst & Young was recently lauded for its efforts to encourage men to take advantage of its progressive family leave policies. But in its profile of female board members and high-level managers, Ernst & Young's numbers look remarkably similar to the rest of the "Best Companies."

"The list-makers cherry-pick the data," Burk says. "If they had a stringent external standard, they'd never be able to give any awards." The list makers and their big business honorees enable each other. Firms can get credit for low- or no-cost options -- which their female employees may be reluctant to take -- and the magazines get advertising dollars. "We don't want to have a list that no one wants to apply to because they're going to be embarrassed," Riss says. "This is a list companies feel comfortable applying to. There's a lot of prestige attached to it." It's a win-win situation, but the winners don't necessarily include mothers in the workforce.

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