Thinking of stepping out? Stay connected

Globe and Mail

Globe and Mail

For parents taking time off, returning to work is not easy, VIRGINIA GALT

(Excerpt from The Globe and Mail, Career Coach By VIRGINIA GALT, Saturday, July 16, 2005

Executive and professional women who voluntarily “step out” of the work force to raise children know it won’t be easy to get back into the corporate game — but few are prepared for just how difficult the re-entry process can be.

After two or more years away from the job, many of these “step-outs” find they have fallen off the radar. Invisible and undervalued, they have to fight their way back in, according to a report released yesterday by the Wharton Centre for Leadership and Change at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

“When women first step out, they feel energized and positive, yet when they attempt to return, they find the experience negative and depressing,” says the report written by lead researcher Monica McGrath.

And, unless they have stayed incredibly connected, many of these women — who “naively assumed” their MBA and law degrees would be their ticket back in — find the world has passed them by.

Toronto-based career management consultant Colleen Clarke sees it all the time in her practice. Women do not lose their management and leadership skills because they have taken a few years off to raise children nor do their brains atrophy. Often, they gain a deeper perspective, Ms. Clarke says.

But recruiters do not see things that way.

Competition is intense and the top jobs often go to “the people who have been putting in the hours, putting in the time, doing the nights, doing the travelling,” Ms. Clarke says. “You know, they’re there.”

Yet, Prof. McGrath writes, it is because of their dedication that many senior professionals and managers feel compelled to take time out from their careers. “Women want the necessary flexibility to be truly competent in both domains, family and work,” she says.

“Intense career demands, combined with few truly accepted flexible work arrangements and limited options for part-time work, will drive professional women to step away from corporate jobs.”

The report, Back In the Game: Returning to Work After a Hiatus, resonates with Aimée Israel, who left her job as a corporate lawyer after the birth of her daughter, Lauren, five years ago.

After a four-month maternity leave, Ms. Israel returned to the work force on a part-time basis as corporate counsel for a leading confectionary company. For a while, it worked.

“It was a bit of a trade-off, going back after only four months, but it was only three days a week, which was a nice balance. But that slowly crept up to four days a week and, when I was pregnant with my son, to five days a week,” Ms. Israel says.

After Nolan, now two, was born, Ms. Israel realized there was probably a market for a service that would help employers keep their senior-level talent on staff. Last year, with two business partners, she launched her own business, Parents at Work, which has been retained by some of Canada’s major law, accounting, technology and pharmaceutical firms to help employees balance the demands of their work and family lives.

Employers are starting to recognize that there is a high cost to losing key employees, both men and women, who need to devote more time to their families, Ms. Israel says. Now pregnant with her third child, she says she probably still works “more than full time,” but, as an entrepreneur, she has more freedom to set her own hours.

The Parents at Work program provides advice and information to employees who need help to manage their time and energy more productively at home and at work.

“It doesn’t change the work. The employers who are partnering with us aren’t necessarily changing policies when it comes to maternity leave and flex-time and things like that,” she says.

But, just the acknowledgment that parents have daunting responsibilities outside the office helps employees realize they are not the only ones who are struggling, and that they do not necessarily have to quit their jobs, Ms. Israel says.

The Wharton research was supported by the Forté Foundation, a U.S.-based consortium of 12 corporations, 23 business schools and a number of non-profit organizations dedicated to advancing women in business.

The researchers surveyed 130 senior business and professional women about their experiences with re-entry after they voluntarily left the work force for two years or more to raise children.

These women represent a huge untapped resource and employers should be doing more to help them re-enter the work force, and universities should be doing more to help their graduates refresh their skills and plug back in, Prof. McGrath writes.

But the women themselves must realize that the world will not come to them and, even though family is their top priority for a while, they should never totally sever their corporate connections, the Wharton report advises.

“You have to remain visible,” Ms. Clarke says.

“You can write articles, get involved in a fundraiser, serve on the board of a non-profit, take a professional development course on-line when the children are in bed,” she suggests. …