- The Washington Times - Monday, September 11, 2000

Sarah Hume and Patrice Alexander Ficklin were picking up their children on Friday when many 9-to-5ers would still be plugging away at their desks.

Ms. Hume is a director of production management at Discovery Communications in Bethesda, and Ms. Ficklin is the director of the corporate justice and employee practices at Fannie Mae, the D.C.-based home lender.

The two mothers are performing the work-family juggling act that has become familiar to American working women, and they say their employers make the balance easier.

The companies were among five local firms selected by Working Mother magazine as the top employers for working women. The publication's 15th annual list featured 100 such companies, including media giant Gannett Co. Inc. in Arlington, biotechnology firm Life Technologies Inc. in Rockville, and hotel operator Marriott International Inc. in Bethesda.

The magazine looked at benefits like on-site child-care centers, leave for new parents, employee satisfaction surveys, the number of women in high-level positions, and schedule flexibility.

Ms. Hume takes advantage of that flexibility at Discovery. On Mondays and Fridays, she works 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. so she can pick up six-year-old Emily from school. Tuesdays through Thursdays, she drops Emily off, then heads to the office until about 6 p.m.

Ms. Ficklin also works a flexible schedule, alternating day-care pickups with her husband John, a federal employee. She said that flexibility was nearly impossible at her former job at a law firm.

"I was really kind of at a crossroads at my law firm" about three years ago, she said, when she began to be considered for partner.

"I was conflicted because the work hours required were just not compatible with the way I wanted to raise my two young boys" Austin, now 4, and John Alex, 7.

She had provided outside counsel to Fannie Mae, had heard about their family-friendly policies and made the switch.

Joan Williams, a law professor at American University, said it's not enough that companies have family-friendly policies they must also have a family-friendly culture.

"It's important to not only to look at these policies on paper, but look at whether people feel free to use them," said Ms. Williams, director of the Gender, Work and Family Project at the university.

Ms. Hume said the position she holds is proof that caring for her family has not compromised her work at Discovery.

"I hold a fairly senior position, and it hasn't held me back," she said.

"The more a company can espouse this type of policy to the more senior managers, it provides a good example to the rest of the company that they too can do it," she added.

She has a computer at home that Discovery provided, allowing her to telecommute if her daughter is sick another policy Ms. Hume said has helped her keep being a mother a high priority.

Ms. Ficklin also said her employer has not held being an active mother against her in fact, her responsibilities have increased since she came to Fannie Mae.

Both of her sons are registered at the company's emergency day-care center, so if school closes for an election or holiday, they can spend the day there.

When at the Fannie Mae center, the children sometimes do community development projects, such as making sandwiches for the homeless or visiting senior citizens' homes.

"It's been a real enriching experience for my sons as well as good quality care," Ms. Ficklin said.

The company also allows employees to do volunteer work 10 hours a month, and two years ago expanded the policy so visits to children's schools would count.

"What that's meant is I'm able to hike out to Prince George's County [to John Alex's school] and go on field trips; I'm able to go to parent-teacher conferences," Ms. Ficklin said. She also attends events at her younger son's day-care center.

Company policies can help fathers as well as mothers.

Though Bill Williams, a training specialist at Discovery, does not frequently use flex-time or work at home, he likes knowing he can if necessary.

"A lot of it is just knowing that it's available. . . it's not lip-service, they're more actively supportive of the need for balance," said Mr. Williams, who does management training.

His wife Cissie stays home with the couple's two-and-a-half-year-old and 10-month-old, but she plans to return to full-time work in the near future, he said.

He feels more secure knowing that he can drop his children off at work-sponsored day care in the event of an emergency.

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