Monica McGrath

(WOMENSENEWS)– Polly Franks can attest to how tough it can be to get back into the work force after time off.

The Richmond, Va., receptionist for an insurance company left work nine years ago for medical reasons. When she started looking for work again in 2004 it took her nine months to land a position.

“I had no idea it would take so long to get back to work,” says Franks, 46, who faults herself for not staying up to date with the latest computer programs. “You can’t allow yourself to become a dinosaur.”

Franks, whose walking ability is impaired by a birth defect, also felt that her disability hindered her in interviews. She was finally helped by a counselor with the Virginia Department of Rehabilitative Services and now she works as a receptionist in a medical office.

Sharon Schoenberg also experienced a protracted period of looking for a job. She had her own small public relations firm in New York City, then she took three years off after marrying and becoming a parent. When she began her job search it took her 10 months to find a vice president position with a public relations firm.

“I was overqualified for 80 percent of what was available,” says Schoenberg, who returned to work last year at a job that allows her to work one day a week from home.

Work re-entry can be difficult for anyone–male or female, professional or less-skilled–but since more women take time off to care for family members, re-entry turbulence most often besets them, triggering exits from or downward adjustments in their fields.

Changing Industries and Roles

“Back in the Game: Returning to Work After a Hiatus,” a study released in June by the Philadelphia-based Wharton Center for Leadership and Change and the Forte Foundation in Austin, Texas, found that 61 percent of 130 study subjects–all women who had taken time off–wound up changing industries and 54 percent changed functional roles.

Eighty-three percent of the study subjects had re-entered the work force, but reported they had accepted a position at a comparable or lower level. Among the respondents who had re-entered the work force, 45 percent are now self-employed.

Women in the study had advanced degrees in fields such as business, law, medicine or education. They held executive level or other management positions. But after spending at least two years away from work–often to raise children or care for sick relatives–they found their prospects for resuming their careers dimmed.

The women reported difficulties in being viewed as attractive candidates for full-time positions and were rarely presented as possible candidates for executive roles. They reported roadblocks such as indifferent and unhelpful recruiters, employers who were skeptical about their age and the time they had spent away from work. When they found jobs, they were typically, in companies with smaller revenues then their previous employers. Only 20 percent found jobs in larger companies.

‘She Hits a Wall’

“Companies have work-life policies, but a woman with an MBA who is out for five years, she’s greeted in the workplace as if she’s not that interesting, she hits a wall,” says Monica McGrath, adjunct assistant professor at Wharton and one of the co-authors of the study. “Things haven’t changed as much as was hoped. There’s always been this dilemma. Women will have the children that are so highly valued by society, but can you stop your career as women?”

In light of the findings, the study authors recommend that universities step up and offer new, focused re-entry programs with refresher courses and seminars on current business topics and industry trends, provide career coaching to address individual situations and challenges and sponsor networking events for step-out alumnae and employers, for example.

They also say companies should work to identify and carve out part-time projects for women during their step-out period and upon re-entry. They say flexible work arrangements should not be career-limiting and they recommend mentoring and training programs designed specifically for re-entering employees.

Accounting giant Ernst and Young, which has made employee retention a top priority, offers a corporate model for some of these recommendations.

Flex Time Promotions

Among the company’s principals, partners and directors, 73 were promoted this year while on a flexible work arrangement; 30 to partner and 43 to principal or director, said Billie Williamson, director of gender equity and flexibility at the company, which has U.S. headquarters in New York. Of those who were promoted to partner, all but one had children, according to Suzanne Kennedy, a spokesperson for the firm. Women on maternity leave from the company have access to e-mail and voice mail. They can take advantage of continuing education programs, as well as training programs that focus on updates for business-related issues, such as new rules and regulations from the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Williamson said seven new partners at the company have worked on flex schedules and 38 of the female partners have flex-work arrangements. Women make up 14 percent of the total partner population as of last July, up from 5 percent in 1996. From 1996 to 2005 women in the company’s top executive positions have increased from 0 to 18.5 percent.

“Our first objective is to see if there is a way to keep the employee engaged so that they don’t totally step off,” says Williamson. “It’s up to corporations to come up with new ways to help people, to be enlightened enough to welcome them back.”

Sheryl Nance-Nash is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, N.Y., specializing in personal finance, business and small business.

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For more information:

“Tips for Women Stepping Back In”:

Wharton Center for Leadership and Change Management
“Back in the Game: Women’s Stories and Strategies for Returning to Business after a Hiatus”:

“Boardroom Pressures Open Doors for Women”: