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Women Re-entering Workforce a Largely Untapped Labor Pool

July 20, 2005
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For women, trying to return to a career after a lengthy break can prove frustrating. One way companies could help--and tap into an existing pool of talent--is to establish effective programs to recruit them. Thus far, most companies have not done that.

Those are among the findings of a recent survey by the Wharton Center for Leadership and Change that outline obstacles experienced businesswomen encounter when they try to find work again.

The respondents, all of whom hold advanced degrees, left executive or managerial positions for a period of at least two years, often to raise children or achieve better balance in their lives. But that is still plenty of time for technological, organizational or regulatory change to sweep their fields, stymieing their plans to return.

While the women in the study reported feeling energized and encouraged at the outset of their time away from work, they said the experience of trying to return was negative and depressing, and they were often unprepared for such obstacles as recruiters who were either unhelpful or not interested.

Monica McGrath, one of the study’s authors, says the situation reflects a lack of leadership from executives. While companies could improve their efforts to identify and hire returning women, she says that MBA programs need no such help with younger people. “They’re aggressive in recruiting women,” McGrath says. But after 10 years, she says, women may discover that earning that advanced degree does little to keep their place when they take time off from their career. One finding in the survey showed that women often returned to smaller companies, having been unable to re-enter at their previous levels in larger organizations.

Making more opportunity for experienced women who step out has to start with senior management, McGrath says. She recommends that companies create one-on-one mentoring programs. These not only cost less than creating a broad initiative but also allow companies to more easily identify someone with specific expertise. Hiring on a project basis is another way for both parties to build confidence and experience.

Some companies find that experienced professionals are worth hanging on to in the first place, and encourage seasoned talent to stay. Edith Hunt, managing director for human capital management at Goldman Sachs in New York, says the firm emphasizes the opportunity for flextime and job-sharing to retain women who might otherwise leave. Hunt adds that the firm has begun using an alumni network to keep track of those who have left, making it easier for the firm to bring them back.

--Jonathan Pont

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