Companies like Netflix and Adobe have put maternity leave in the spotlight, but not every organization gives employees the option to return after a year’s absence. Many women have to leave an organization permanently to raise their children.
When mothers decide to re-enter the workforce, they often face discrimination because of their extended unemployment, which might be partly why women aren’t as likely to make partner in law or accounting firms. In 2014, the American Bar Association found that only 4 percent of the 200 top U.S. law firms have female, firmwide managing partners. The accounting industry is slightly ahead, with the Journal of Accountancy reporting that women hold 1 in 5 partnership positions.
Organizations like law firm Sidley Austin have started programs that provide a career path for women who are not only interested in rejoining the workforce but committed to getting to the top. The effort helps women advance to higher positions as well as enhances their younger counterparts’ learning experience.
“Some women decide to leave the workplace for a while to get their children off to a good start, and that represents a talent pool that is untapped and already trained,” said Sally Olson, chief diversity officer at law firm Sidley Austin. “All these women were very type-A, high-powered women to start with, and that didn’t stop when they had children.”
The firm partnered with the OnRamp Fellowship, an organization dedicated to matching women who want to re-enter the legal sector with firms in need of their skills. Since 2014, they have introduced six fellows into the organization. Four have been hired full-time, one is finishing the program and one is in the interview process for a position.
Women participating in the program serve as associates at the firm, already overcoming one of the major hurdles that stand between female lawyers returning to the force — getting hired.
“I never was able to get the practice group leaders to interview someone with a gap when there were others coming from great firms,” said Caren Ulrich Stacy, the OnRamp Fellowship’s founder.
That’s what led her to start the fellowship — so returning women could update their skill sets and demonstrate their abilities by working as firm associates. Meanwhile, they get access to coaching programs, personality testing, networking and learning programs that will propel them up the ladder and into a partnership position by improving their technological skills and building up their confidence.
“Part of this is coming in and getting land legs again, because when you’re out of the workforce for 10 or 15 or 20 years, you forget what it’s like to be in a demanding position,” Stacy said. “This year gives them a chance to shake the dust off, but it’s also a reminder of what it’s going to take to move up the ladder and sustain partnership.”
Women in any industry who come back from leave have value that younger employees might not possess. Olson said many have client connections that it takes years to obtain, while others serve on nonprofit or business boards while parenting.
They also bring experience that younger employees don’t have, simply because of their maturity, which makes them prime peer mentors who not only lend their skills now but build them in others.
“I can’t tell you how my communication skills have improved by dealing with 6-year-old twins,” said Kristen Rampe, a former accountant and author of “Accounting Dreams and Delusions.” “The skills women bring include that ability to nurture and develop the next generation. They’ll be in tune to the needs of next generation more than those who are older and don’t have kids.”
Olson said an interesting dynamic develops at Sidley Austin, where younger associates provide legal skills and fellows provide professional skills. Through this give-and-take, both groups become better at their jobs.
But a woman doesn’t have to aim for partnership to be valuable to a firm. Although Sidley Austin and OnRamp seek out employees who want to lead the firm, Rampe said even those with less lofty goals are worth reintroducing into the workforce. After all, there’s not enough room for everyone to be a partner, but organizations need stalwart directors, managers and experts.
For those in OnRamp who decide partnership isn’t for them, Stacy has helped them find something that works.
“They’ve negotiated with firms to find something other than partner role,” she said. “The firms have been glad to (find new paths) because they see the value in all types of people.”