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Mom, the next corporate titan

Hungry for talent, big companies have started to pursue women who have dropped out of the workforce. How this could redefine the whole notion of a career.

ROBIN GUGICK MAYER had the qualifications, but couldn't find the job she wanted. She had been a corporate bond analyst at Prudential Securities for 10 years, then had worked at a smaller firm for five more. But Mayer had stopped working in January 2005 when her third child was born, and when she wanted back in, the headhunters she spoke to were reluctant : A woman who takes time off is a tough sell.

Mayer managed to get a handful of interviews using her own connections, but even companies that were interested weren't willing to allow her to work from home one day a week to be with her kids.

``It was hard, very hard," she recalls. ``I didn't know anyone in my area of specialty who had taken time off and come back."

In March of this year she was part of the inaugural class of a new program at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, designed to recruit and retrain women like her. Over three days, Mayer and her classmates took classes on finance, strategic communication, marketing theory, and decision-making. They met in small groups with career coaches. Each was assigned a mentor at the investment bank UBS, the program's sponsor, and each spent a day with recruiters at the bank's New York City headquarters. And afterward, Mayer was one of three women hired to work there - except for Fridays, when she works from home.

The collaboration between UBS and Wharton is part of a burgeoning movement among some of the nation's top banks, accounting firms, and management consultancies to recruit talent in a new way. Instead of chasing the recent graduates of top business schools, or raiding the competition, the idea is to woo highly skilled women who have left the workforce, usually to have children.

In just the past few years, spurred largely by a tight market for white-collar labor, firms such as the investment banks Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs have launched targeted recruiting programs. A new class of headhunters and human resources consultants has emerged to help smaller companies do the same. Other companies, including the accounting firm Ernst and Young and management consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton, have programs that allow women taking time off to keep in touch with the firm and even do occasional work until they're ready to return. Elite business schools like Dartmouth's Tuck School and the Harvard Business School have programs similar to Wharton's, and the how-tos of finding and hiring women coming off a career break - women who are ``onramping," in the current human-resources parlance - are hot topics in business school classrooms.

So far, these efforts are still new, and small: Wharton's Career Comeback program had 60 graduates this fall, and Lehman Brothers, a company with 28,000 employees, has hired 31 women and three men through its Encore program. Nonetheless, the idea of creating a systematic recruiting process for women looking to get back into the workforce, rather than something more ad hoc - or rather than ignoring them completely - marks an important shift. And the fact that the companies instituting these programs are hard-charging financial services firms with reputations for making few concessions to their employees' lifestyles could be a sign, some believe, of much broader changes to come in the corporate world.

``You are seeing a real change of culture," says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist and founder of a think tank called the Center for Work-Life Policy who has consulted with many of the firms now creating onramping programs. ``Companies in a variety of sectors are starting to take this very seriously."

In a sense, the new concern about onramping is a sign of the advances women have made in the workforce. The last decade has seen pronounced progress toward gender parity on Wall Street and in other similarly high-powered corporate jobs. This is particularly true at the entry level - women now make up nearly half the new hires in many white-collar workplaces - but women are also beginning to get jobs in the hierarchy that, in another era, would have been off-limits. Yet women are far more likely than their male colleagues to leave the workforce for some period.

Figuring out how to ease the transition back to work is part of the larger challenge of determining just how today's workforce will function. The lengths companies are willing to go to attract and keep women like Robin Mayer might ultimately determine how easy it is for both men and women to challenge the model of the unbroken upward career ladder that has defined white-collar success.

``Right now these programs are special, they're exceptional," says Constance Helfat, a professor at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business. ``But you want it not to be special. You want it to be normal."

In 2004 a coalition of Fortune 500 companies, concerned about the loss of women workers, formed the Hidden Brain Drain Task Force, an organization dedicated to finding better ways to attract and retain female talent. That same year, the task force sponsored what remains the only large-scale study of workers taking career breaks. It found that 37 percent of working women with graduate, professional, or high-honors undergraduate degrees leave their jobs at some point. The most common reason was that work didn't leave them enough time to take care of their children. By comparison, 24 percent of men leave their jobs voluntarily at some point, typically to go back to school or to switch to another job, according to the study.

Choosing not to work, of course, is a luxury, limited to those in households wealthy enough to go without one income. Still, 93 percent of women who drop out, the study found, plan to go back to work.

Only 74 percent have been able to, though. And according to a series of focus groups conducted along with the poll, many who do find work feel that their new jobs are a step down - less satisfying, less respected, less worthy of their education and experience than what they did before their time off.

``There is still a stigma and a bias against women who have left the workforce," says Sarah Grayson, a partner at On-Ramps, a headhunting firm launched last December that helps companies find job candidates among nonworking women. Even with women looking for full-time work, she says, ``There's a presumption that they aren't going to want to work as hard."

Catherine Tanelli, who attended the Tuck School's inaugural Back in Business program last fall, sees herself as a case in point. She spent five years out of the workforce - she quit her job as a director at MetLife when her partner's job took them to Paris and visa restrictions prevented Tanelli from working. When they returned, she put herself back on the job market and found interviewers leery of her time off. Part of it, she says, was a concern that her skills and knowledge were outdated. Part of it was a suspicion that her decision to take time off meant she didn't take her work seriously. ``Typically the person who's interviewing you hasn't taken time off," she says. ``They question your commitment."

Monica McGrath, a Wharton professor and the academic director of the school's Career Comeback program, hears similar stories all the time. One woman she spoke to, McGrath recalls, had grown so fed up with rejections that she seriously considered taking her MBA off her résumé. This, the woman figured, would at least make her eligible for lower-ranking positions in which she would have the opportunity to prove her commitment and reliability.

Several of the new onramping programs include classes designed to help women overcome those worries. Last fall, at Tuck's Back in Business program, half of the 15-day course was given over to refresher classes on core business-school topics like finance, strategy, marketing, and supply chain management. The other half was divided evenly between another business school staple, leadership skills training and evaluation, and nuts-and-bolts career search aid: ``networking skills" classes, résumé pointers, and discussions of how to deal with interviewers' skepticism about time taken off.

This fall, according to Anant Sundaram, a Tuck professor who helped design the program, the emphasis will shift toward more job-search help. Last year's participants, he says, found the leadership self-assessments less useful.

``Most of them already felt pretty comfortable assessing their capabilities, and most of them have a good sense of their leadership skills," Sundaram said. ``A mother gets to exercise plenty of leadership skills."

Some leaders see the onramping movement as a tool not just to get women into the workforce, but to fundamentally reshape how we conceive of careers. According to Hewlett, the idea is starting to spread beyond the financial services sector. Technology and engineering firms have also traditionally had trouble attracting and retaining qualified women, and several have talked to her about setting up programs of their own, she said. More business schools, among them Yale and the University of Minnesota's Carlson School, are also preparing courses.

These programs cannot by themselves solve the problems of today's onrampers. They are popular, and most graduates are happy with their experiences. Nonetheless, roughly half of the 41 participants in last fall's program at Tuck are still looking for work.

Improving those numbers may be less a matter of tweaking course curricula than changing the culture at the sort of places onrampers are trying to work. ``There's a sense at many of these firms of 'What do we do with these people?"' says Sundaram. Even setting aside the question of stigma, onrampers can be harder to fit into a firm's hierarchy: they often have several years' experience and are looking for higher-level positions. In many cases they also demand flexibility in their schedule to look after kids or care for aging parents. And figuring out what 10 years of work followed by three years at home adds up to in terms of seniority is something firms are still struggling with.

But they are starting to figure it out. As more onrampers come back into the workforce, precedents are being created. A growing number of programs help that process along, at the very least by simply providing more places for onrampers and recruiters to find each other, and making these sorts of candidates that much less exotic. It's what management consultants like to call a virtuous cycle.

``The more different programs and different institutions are doing this, the more it helps the overall cause of helping women back into the workplace," says Elana Weinstein, a Goldman Sachs vice president who helped design the company's New Directions program.

And it shouldn't just be women of child-bearing age who take advantage of them, according to many of the executives and academics working on these programs. The broader goal, they say, is for careers with periodic off- and onramps to become a mainstream option for men and women.

Brooks Dougherty was one of six men in the Tuck program. He had taken a year off to be with his four kids after the small investment firm where he was a partner was bought by Deutsche Bank. Then his ex-wife became ill, and he took two more years off to take care of their children until she was well again. When he was preparing to go on the job market, his current wife was diagnosed with breast cancer and he took another year to help her recover. When he finally started looking for work again, he said, ``recruiters couldn't figure out what hole I fit in. There was this unspoken message in the room that I had made some choices that weren't appropriate for a man to make."

But Dougherty, who eventually found work as a consultant for Lehman Brothers, thinks that attitude is changing, if slowly. As he points out, even without a personal catastrophe, workers are far less likely to stay at one company their whole career today than they used to be. If it gets easier to onramp, the workplace is likely to grow even more fluid, and for many workers the familiar career arc could be replaced with more of a patchwork path.

``We're starting to look at flexibility over the course of a career rather than just in the course of a year or week," says Carolyn Buck Luce, a global managing partner at Ernst and Young and chair of the Hidden Brain Drain Task Force. ``It's just the beginning."

Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail drbennett@globe.com.

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