The Downside of 24/7 Service

FRAMINGHAM (03/27/2000) - For two months, Miriam Boucher kept her expectations real low. If she could get home, eat dinner and still have enough time to catch a few winks, it was a good day.

Boucher, a quality assurance engineer at Burlington, Massachusetts-based Foliage Software Systems, was working on a classified aviation industry project and had little choice but to pull 70- to 75-hour workweeks.

She saw her husband, Robert, on Sundays and before bed. That was about it.

Boucher is far from alone. A January poll commissioned by the AFL-CIO found that 46 percent of women who are married or living with someone see their significant others only in passing because they work different hours.

"We knew that this was happening," said AFL-CIO spokeswoman Lane Windham. "But nobody dreamed that the numbers would be this high."

There are probably two factors behind the findings, Windham said. Dual-career couples are struggling to balance work and child care. And 24-hour service has become the norm.

While the survey (a random nationwide telephone sample of 765 women, with a 3.5 percent margin of error) found that women in lower-paying service jobs are the most likely to work unusual hours, women in all fields seem to be affected.

Round the Clock

In information technology, 24-hour help desks and middle-of-the-night server crashes require off-hour workers.

"Partly, it's choice," said Windham. "But the other issue is that people are doing it because they're forced to take jobs in this service economy, which is not 9 to 5."

Things are back to normal for Boucher now, she said, but it's just a matter of time before she gets sucked into her next all-consuming project.

"Yup. I see it happening again. And no, I don't have any flexibility," she said.

Such demands are not unusual for women in IT, said Kristine Hanna, co-founder of Girl Geeks Inc., a San Francisco-based career training and mentoring organization. At many companies, there's only about one female engineer for every 100 males, and there's pressure to compete.

But, said Hanna, with so many IT jobs out there, companies are actively recruiting women, and they're willing to make work manageable - with flextime, job sharing, telecommuting - to attract them.

"People who aren't in IT have this image of somebody sitting behind a computer in a little cubicle for 24 hours a day with no contact with the outside world," she said. "That's not the case."

Women's World

Girl Geeks just completed its own survey looking at what women want in the IT workplace and plans to release the findings this week.

The survey shows that most IT jobs are very flexible, said Hanna. "A lot of these women are able to work out of their homes," she said. "They're essentially creating their own time, their own schedules, their own world."

IT workers have another edge, said Barbara Gomolski, research director at Eden Prairie, Minnesota-based Gartner Institute Inc. Because they are more technologically savvy, they are more likely to telecommute.

"Partly it's the technology," said Gomolski. "We've got PalmPilots. We've got laptops. We're able to stay more connected than people in other professions."

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