Ways to Help Women ‘On-Ramp’ Careers

America’s business leadership pipeline is being squeezed by the “opt-out revolution.”

New research from Vanderbilt professor Joni Hersch confirms that highly educated women are likely to take so-called off-ramps. In Hersch’s 2013 study, “Opting Out Among Women With Elite Education,” she found that female graduates from elite undergraduate universities work far fewer hours than counterparts from less selective institutions. Further, many of these women earned an MBA and presumably were on C-suite trajectories.

Whether women are opting out because they have the financial resources to allow that choice or they feel pushed out by inflexible responsibilities, the talent losses to employers are significant. Such losses are compounded with generational transformations also at hand; as many as 81 million baby boomers are on the verge of entering their retirement years, according to Census Bureau data cited by Catalyst, a nonprofit women’s advocacy group.

But just because women take career breaks doesn’t mean they want out for good. For example, of the Harvard Business School alumni now at home caring for children full time, 86 percent report they plan to go back to work, according to a 2013 Harvard Business School survey, “Life and Leadership After HBS.”

The trick is for talent and diversity leaders to come up with ways to get these women acclimated back into the workforce upon their return.

Building better on-ramps starts with recruiting. This requires a change in mindset — from one that says the only prospects worth pursuing are the “up and comers,” to one that is more open and accepting of prospects with a variety of career paths. A woman who has earned an elite degree, held a demanding management position, raised two children and served on a board can offer value — even if she has left the workforce for a period of years.

Programs focused on returning women can help with recruitment and on-boarding. For example, Goldman Sachs created a 10-week “returnship” program to help people transition back into the workforce after a prolonged absence. Launched in 2008, the program recruits and develops people who are seeking to restart their careers after a break of more than two years. The program includes training sessions and formal mentors, and Goldman Sachs reports that it has been able to hire about 50 percent of program participants.

Retaining returning women likely means companies have to make a greater commitment to flexibility. A November 2011 study of Harvard graduates suggested that inflexible environments were primary factors in pushing women out of the labor force in the first place. In addition to options such as telecommuting and flex-time, flexibility can mean extended leave programs that provide employees with structured time off and transition periods when they return.

For instance, professional services firm PwC’s “Full Circle” program allows top performers to “off-ramp” from their careers for up to five years, stay connected to PwC colleagues and maintain their technical credentials before eventually returning to the firm. Participants in this unpaid, voluntary arrangement have access to coaching, on-site and virtual training, and reimbursement for annual licensing and credentialing.

Another approach is the “Mass Career Customization” program that Deloitte began piloting in 2005 as a way to keep talented women in the workforce. Based on a career path model of a lattice rather than a ladder, Mass Career Customization offers employees the chance to “dial up” or “dial down” responsibilities with a set of options for four core career dimensions — pace, workload, location/schedule and role.

To develop the talent of returning women, employers can also provide sponsorship.

Deutsche Bank launched its “Accomplished Top Leaders Advancement Strategy” program in 2009 with the goal of increasing the number of women eligible for the firm’s most senior positions. The program put participants together with members of the company’s Group Executive Committee, and about half have moved into broader roles.

Financial services firm Citigroup initiated a “Women in Risk” program, in which executive committee members in the firm’s risk management division sponsor female directors or senior vice presidents. Citi, which launched the program in 2011, reports that more than half the participating women moved into bigger roles in their first year.

Julie Kampf is president and CEO of JBK Associates International, an executive talent firm. She can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.