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PAYING A PRICE FOR WORKING
ALTHOUGH WOMEN HAVE ADVANCED IN THE WORKPLACE, THEY STILL FACE PENALTIES AND SETBACKS THROUGHOUT THEIR CAREERS

Fonda Kubiak didn't have any trouble getting into law school. She had no problem finding a clerking position or landing her first job as an attorney. She eventually ran the Buffalo firm's real estate department.

While Kubiak and other career women today don't face the type of gender discrimination that held back earlier generations of women, they do have other obstacles to overcome.

Like potential setbacks if they take a year or two off to raise a family.

Or career-damaging penalties if they don't stay late at the office, work weekends or travel for business on a moment's notice.

Although men play a more active role in family life today, it's still usually the woman who stays home with sick kids and responds to other family emergencies, such as ailing parents.

"If someone has to take off from work, it's usually the woman," said Lucy Mysiak, president of Business and Professional Women of Buffalo.

The cost of parenthood

A successful career sometimes comes at the price of a family.

Between 33 percent and 43 percent of high-achieving career women are childless at ages 41 to 55, according to a 2001 study by the Center for Work-Life Policy, which advocates workplace polices that promote personal and family well-being. Only 14 percent of those women were childless by choice. About 25 percent of high-achieving men are childless at ages 41 to 55.

Some companies, such as those cited each year by Working Mother magazine, provide benefits and flexibility that allow women with children to have a career and a family. More than a dozen companies with ties to Western New York are helping moms -- and dads -- balance family and work responsibilities, according to the 2004 list.

But Kubiak said she worked for a less family-friendly firm.

"I left because it was impossible for me to be there working and a mother at the same time," said Kubiak, 35, who has a 5-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter. "They wanted their associates working six days a week."

She opted to start her own practice, which still involves long hours but offers more flexibility. Initially, she earned about the same amount as she made at her former firm. Now she earns about 30 percent more.

Women pay an inordinate penalty for the time they leave the work force to care for children, which is an average of 2.2 years, according to a study by the Center for Work-Life Policy.

Overall, women lost 18 percent of their pay when they returned. In the business sector, women's earning power dropped 28 percent. And in all sectors, if they left for three or more years, their pay fell 37 percent.

Some of the pay decrease is attributed to women returning part time or to a job with less responsibility. But some women don't return at all. While 93 percent want to go back to work after having children, only 74 percent succeed in finding a job.

Jobs are in short supply

And, Buffalo's economy doesn't make it any easier.

In Western New York, 1,600 jobs were added last year -- the first time since 2000 that the yearly job growth picture improved. But the area needs to add another 10,800 jobs just to get back to where it was in 2000.

"Locally, women are trying to balance so many things and the job market is becoming much more restrictive in this area," said Mysiak, of Business and Professional Women of Buffalo.

"The result of all the economic problems -- including those county layoffs -- is more people, especially women, are going to have problems advancing."

Therefore, it will be more important than ever for women to network and be assertive.

"Women need to know how to be more proactive, not to be so polite about it, to be more aggressive about wanting promotions," Mysiak said.

On the plus side

Even in male-dominated fields such as manufacturing, women can rise to senior management.

Kyle K. Swiat, 42, is vice president of sales and marketing for Sti-Co Industries in Orchard Park, which makes two-way antenna systems. She admits that it helps that the CEO of the company is both a woman and her mother-in-law. But the primary buyers of Sti-Co's two-way antennas are male-dominated law enforcement agencies.

Other than the fact that she does not network by going out for a beer with a client, Swiat notices no difference between herself and male sales representatives.

"I deal primarily with men, but they've all been professional and respectful," said Swiat, who is married with three children.

Even if there aren't many women in an industry, they can still succeed and advance.

Velma Szczesny, 55, is one of the few female financial advisers at the Amherst office of Wachovia Securities. Having a family, she said, didn't hinder her rise to first vice president, investment officer.

Unlike a law firm that bills clients for hours worked, Wachovia was more focused on the results Szczesny achieved, not how much she worked. And when she was preparing to take her broker's exam, her husband would take the children out on Saturdays so she could study.

"You have your own hours, but they are not short hours," Szczesny said. "If my children had a play at school and you knew ahead of time, you could plan your week or day to be available. It also helps to have a patient husband."

e-mail: lhaarlander@buffnews.com