WHAT DO WORKING WOMEN WANT? A thoughtful analyst offers straight talk on the controversial topic of how companies should treat female employees.
By ANNE B. FISHER

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Remember that mommy track brouhaha? Get ready for round two. When Felice Schwartz wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review in 1989 that dared suggest that women tend to follow different career tracks than men -- because (surprise!) women and men are somewhat different creatures -- the ensuing outcry made headlines for months. In Breaking With Tradition (Warner Books, $21.95), Schwartz, a consultant to corporations, is back with a book that both defends her original thesis and offers practical advice to companies eager to keep talented people who happen to be female. Schwartz spends too much time whining about her treatment from the media, which she says grossly distorted the point of her HBR piece. This chapter, though hardly the stuff to inspire friendly reviews, may endear her to anyone who's ever felt betrayed by glib or unscrupulous journalists. But the real reason to read this book is that Schwartz, a thoughtful analyst of women's changing role in the world for more than 30 years, talks plain and compelling common sense. And let's face it, when it comes to the highly charged dilemmas that surround how men and women in business see and treat one another, common sense is rarer than rubies. Take the whole question of maternity leaves. It's an unavoidable biological fact that most women who have children -- and 85% do -- deliver them between the ages of 25 and 40, when disappearing for months or years is most hazardous to one's career. Yet, says Schwartz, instead of accepting that reality and finding ways to lessen the blow -- both to women and to the companies that value them -- everyone tiptoes around trying to pretend it isn't so. As an example, she cites a study by a national women's organization, which approvingly reported that 78% of women in ''accommodating workplaces'' returned to work after having a baby, as opposed to 50% of those working for ''unaccommodating bosses.'' The author is underwhelmed. She writes: ''I challenge you to imagine what would be the reaction if one-quarter, or fully half, of male employees who had left the workplace for six weeks for any reason chose at the end of that period not to return to their jobs.'' Wouldn't the huge cost to the company be acknowledged, she asks, and wouldn't there be a serious effort to prevent that kind of attrition in the future? Why do so few companies make such an effort now? Do employers, and women themselves, still unconsciously believe that women don't really belong anyway, so who cares if they leave? If so, given the demographics of the U.S. work force now and in the years ahead, how much intellectual candlepower will be thrown away simply because ''we've always done it this way''? Schwartz's goal is to provoke managers of both sexes not just to react viscerally but to think. This book is likely to raise as many hackles -- feminist, traditionalist, undecided, you name it -- as her infamous HBR piece did. But if managing for diversity is going to be more than just the latest human resource department catch phrase, maybe a few raised hackles aren't such a bad idea.

EXCERPT: ''Working women have proven their smarts ((but)) until babies have a place on the business agenda, we will all continue to fail.''