How solid is Working Mother’s seal of approval?

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Tomorrow, Working Mother magazine will release its annual list of 100 best employers for working moms. There’ll be much fanfare as the magazine’s editors blanket the airwaves and employers around the country tout their placement on the list. I myself just got a pitch asking if TIME would care to interview the magazine’s editors, and tomorrow some HR people from one of the ranked employers is visiting me to discuss the honor.

But what does it mean, exactly, to land on the WM list? And how solid is this seal of approval?

According to this report on Marketplace from American Public Media radio, there’s reason to be a bit skeptical. As Amy Scott reports:

Companies spend a lot of money and time trying to get on lists like Working Mother’s. It’s great PR and helps them attract talent. HR departments devote hours to collecting data and filling out questionnaires.

But how good are these companies for working women, really?

Of the 100 best last year, eight of them didn’t offer any fully-paid maternity leave. Two award-winners didn’t offer paid leave at all.

What! How could a company that doesn’t let new moms stay home with their newborns without going broke be considered a great place for moms to work? She goes on:

Then there’s the cozy relationship between award-winners and the magazine. By Working Mother’s own calculation, 65 percent of the winners buy advertising. Many of them sponsor the annual awards dinner.

Now, as the employee of another ad-supported glossy publication, I can’t fault a magazine for taking or soliciting advertising based on content. Sometimes I’m placed on assignment to service an ad that was sold “against” my beat (though never my topic; in other words, an advertiser asks to be placed near a workplace article, but it can’t choose the subject matter). But you can’t fault a reader for wondering if a giant opening spread in WM this month for some major employer had anything to do with its top placement on the list.

Carol Evans, CEO of Working Mother Media, argues:

Not that we won’t ask you to advertise. Because it’s a real opportunity for companies to get their commercial message out right in the same environment where they’re also getting a very strong editorial message.

When I heard that, I winced. So along with the letter informing you youv’e landed on the list, you get a media packet asking you to shell out for some ad pages. Hmm.

I’m actually a fan of these rankings. Putting a spotlight on employers that do well by their employees can do a lot of good, as PR-starved companies strive harder to squeeze into the public’s good graces. Their motives aren’t necessarily warm and fuzzy; studies document that companies that treat workers well also tend to report better earnings and stock-price growth (investors increasingly sift their portfolios for good corporate citizenship).

Working Mother’s rankings in particular are a big boon to us working moms; it’s one of our few allies in the battle for good working conditions. I wholeheartedly agree with the practice of patting employers on the back publicly for offering paid maternity leave and promoting women. But I want to know the standards for the rankings are rigorous and uncompromised. Don’t you?