The Case For Creating A Re-Entrance Program For New Mothers

To keep highly educated female talent in the workforce, more companies are figuring out ways to ease the transition back into the office.

The Case For Creating A Re-Entrance Program For New Mothers
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Women are increasingly better educated and more ambitious than men, but they are still leaving their careers more frequently. Could a formal re-entrance program be the answer?

Women hold more undergraduate degrees than men and the majority of students in graduate schools are women. When asked about their life priorities, 66% of women between the ages of 18 to 34 rated career as being high on their list compared to 59% of men.

But despite having high aspirations, one-third of college-educated women will leave their career track at some point to have children, care for children or for their aging parents, writes Brigid Schulte in the Washington Post.

As a result of the “opt out revolution,” which the New York Times magazine wrote about in 2013, more companies are creating re-entrance programs to ease the challenges that come after a long career break. The hope is to keep highly educated female talent in the workforce, seamlessly integrating them back in when they’re ready, while subsequently making sure the programs don’t create a culture of stigma for those who opt out.

This is a challenging act to balance. “I don’t think we know how to do it. We talk about it. It’s really been a challenge,” says Schulte, author of the book Overwhelmed. “[These programs] aren’t just good for returning parents. They’re good for everybody, especially now when more of us are going to have aging parents, more pressure … to take care of them or make sure mom’s going to her chemotherapy appointment. Whether you have kids or not, that’s going to affect all sorts of workers.”

According to Schulte, the challenge is that a lot of companies don’t know how to have those conversations, and therefore don’t really understand what people need when they come back to work.

“A lot of companies think, ‘It’s going to be awful. We’re going to lose this person. It’s going to be so hard,” she says. “And they don’t want to deal with it, and so they don’t. It always turns into this hassle, and then the people going on leave feel badly and feel like they’re in trouble. And the employers want to be happy for the people because they’re having a baby but [they’re] also kind of irritated. It’s just bad for everybody.”

How To Make Re-Entrance Work

Many companies are trying to figure it out, from JP Morgan’s re-entry program to MetLife’s Act 2 program to Goldman Sachs’s “Returnship” model. Started in 2008, Goldman’s program was designed for those who have been out of the workforce for at least two years and are ready to return. “Returnship” is a paid, 10-week program in a variety of divisions, according to Goldman’s website, with the objective of providing those with the necessary skills the chance to re-enter the workforce. While the program is highly competitive (only 19 out of 1,000 applicants were chosen in 2013), over 50% of the 150 total participants were hired at the end of the scheme.

In the legal industry, Caren Ulrich Stacy’s OnRamp Fellowship is among one of the more successful programs helping highly educated women re-enter the workforce. Launched last year, OnRamp now involves 15 law firms in 24 states, and offers one-year, mid-level associate positions at law firms that are part-work, part-training. Associates are paid $125,000 stipends–less than the salary of a first or second-year associate at a big law firm–and get the opportunity to learn new skills, gain excellent experience, and are given references when they complete their program. OnRamp also serves as a good investment for law firms because they get high-performing talent, but aren’t required to hire the person when the year-long program ends. Nonetheless, all nine of the original OnRamp fellows were hired full-time in 2014.

It’s not just the corporate world that’s thinking about this. Custom online lingerie retailer True&Co is an example of a startup trying to figure out the delicate act between work and family life. So far, True&Co have enlisted four people on their re-entry program since it launched last year. This includes weeks of shadowing before an employee departs and weeks of transitional leadership training once someone opts back in. True&Co’s founder, Michelle Lam, decided it was time to design the program after learning of her employee Kathy Buchanan’s pregnancy during a business trip. At the time, Buchanan had been a part of Lam’s team for five months, and was the first person to have gotten pregnant while working at the company.

“It was important to me that I be supportive of [her] personal journey,” says Lam. She believes that the only way these programs work is to know what your employees need, be transparent with your team about the program, and repeat the message across all internal forums until it’s heard loud and clear.

As re-entrance programs pick up momentum in the labor force, companies seeking to launch their own programs are searching for guidance. Carol Fishman Cohen fills this need with her “return-to-work” resource, iRelaunch, for employers, universities, and individuals. After an 11-year hiatus to raise four children, Cohen, a Harvard Business School graduate, returned to work at Bain Capital, and recalls feeling “isolated” and “without a game plan.”

“Remember, this was back in 2000 and 2001; it’s nothing like it is today where there is media attention on the issue and there are formal corporate programs, academic studies and TV characters who have taken career breaks, like Alicia Florrick in The Good Wife,” Cohen tells Fast Company. “It wasn’t part of the national conversation, and that made it feel a lot more isolating.”

While writing her career re-entry book Back On The Career Track with Vivian Rabin, another Harvard grad who took time off to have five children, Cohen became the subject of a Harvard Business School case study on successfully relaunching one’s career after a long break.

During this time, Cohen spoke to more than 100 women who had returned to work after time at home, as well as to employers, recruiters, work-life experts, and academics to hear different perspectives on the transitions. As a result of the knowledge she gained, Cohen launched iRelaunch, and a recent conference by the company, held at Columbia University, attracted over 550 attendees and 19 corporate and university sponsors.

In an HBR article, Cohen offers employers seven recommendations for successful return-to-work-programs: 1) keep the group small “to ensure high-quality, high-touch support”; 2) have an internal champion, like the CEO; 3) model the program after existing internship programs; 4) introduce hiring managers to participants; 5) identify high-performing employees who once took a break to “inspire returnees” and also “influence skeptical hiring managers”; 6) expand campus recruitment to include all ages in order to “attract experienced workers without having to create special programs”; and 7) partner with an academic program to offer “short-term skill-building programs for the return-to-work demographic.”

For More Than Motherhood

While most programs initially focused on mothers opting back into their careers, Cohen says the remit is much broader now.

“We focus on men and women who have taken career breaks for childcare reasons,” she explains. “We focus on men and women who have taken breaks for elder care, personal interests, personal health issues, a whole range of issues that have nothing to do with childcare.”

Cohen believes this broad focus of re-entry programming is exactly what the workforce needs.

Schulte agrees: “The bottom line is that more and more people don’t want to work all the time,” she says. “As we look at how workplaces and the economy are changing, people are not staying in jobs for 40 years. There’s a lot more fluidity and it seems to me that it’s a really good time to try to figure out how to make that fluidity work for everybody.”

About the author

Vivian Giang is a business writer of gender conversations, leadership, entrepreneurship, workplace psychology, and whatever else she finds interesting related to work and play. You can find her on Twitter at @vivian_giang.

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