Sunday, June 05, 2005

[article] BACK IN THE GAME: Women's Stories and Strategies for Returning to Business after a Hiatus

By Monica McGrath, Mary Gross, and Marla Driscoll

In recent years, significant media attention has focused on the exodus of highly educated women from the workforce. While most of the articles and news features concentrate on the reasons why women leave their jobs, very little attention has been given to the other side of the story: what happens when these women attempt to return to the workforce after a career break, and what can be done to facilitate their re-entry?

For the past year, we have studied women who "step out" of their career -- that is, women who take a break from their managerial or professional career but intend to return to a corporate position in the near future. We wanted to understand the challenges that executive and professional women face in stepping back into the working world after an extended hiatus and to identify proactive measures that such women, as well as employers and universities, can take to facilitate the transition. Addressing the re-entry process is important given the shortage of experienced talent, the large number of women who do step out, and the goal of ensuring a diverse workforce.

Drawing upon a survey of more than 120 step-out women and in depth interviews with 25, we have found a marked migration toward smaller companies upon re-entry, and significant movement across industries and functional roles. In addition, a quarter of our survey participants have opted out of the corporate world entirely upon their return to the workforce in favor of entrepreneurial opportunities.

Women can facilitate their return to the workforce, we find, by taking specific steps before they decide to step out of their career, during their time away from the corporate arena, and during the subsequent job search period. For instance, women who structure their step-out period -- through ongoing networking with mentors and colleagues, keeping pace with industry and technology trends, and cultivating new skills that are of value in the workplace -- fare better during the job search period than those who more completely disconnect. The same is true of women who frame their step-out experiences for a business context -- e.g., how the skills they developed during their hiatus can be useful upon their return to work -- and maintain their self-confidence during their step-out period via a strong network of support.

Employers interested in accessing the talent pool of step-out women can take several actions to attract re-entrants, including flexible work programs, training their own recruiting staff to recognize the value that step-outs can bring to the workplace, structured ramp-up programs similar to those in place for relocating employees or ex-patriots, and formal and informal mentoring initiatives.

Universities can also play a greater role in preparing step-out women to re-enter the work world. Universities could offer, for instance, focused re-entry programs containing refresher courses and seminars on current business topics. Such certification programs would help re-entrants better market themselves to potential employers while also providing employers with greater assurance regarding the abilities and readiness of candidates to contribute to their companies. Universities could also draw upon their relationships with corporate leaders to identify projects or other temporary assignments that alumnae could perform during their step-out period or upon re-entry. University career offices could provide step-out women with improved guidance and support for finding their way back into the corporate world.

Everybody stands to gain from such measures. Step-out women will approach the re-entry process with more confidence and competence; employers can capitalize on a broader pool of leadership talent; and universities can expand their service to both alumnae and employers. Tapping this under-appreciated but highly experienced segment of the workforce and leveraging its capacities is sure to become increasingly important in the years ahead.

Note: Monica McGrath is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Wharton School; Mary Gross is a Director at Merrill Lynch Investment Managers, where she is Head of Learning & Development; and Marla Driscoll is an independent consultant. The research team expects to publish the results of their study in the second half of 2005. For more information on the study, contact Dr. McGrath at

Source: Wharton Leadership Digest