Companies & Industries

Making On-Ramping Easy


Companies put themselves at risk when they ignore the need to help workers ease the transition back to work after personal leave

Posted on Harvard Business Review: July 8, 2010 8:36 AM

What organization can afford to sideline or lose nearly three out of five of its most talented workers? That's the risk uncovered by the Center for Work-Life Policy's latest research on off-ramps and on-ramps, published last month in the Harvard Business Review. Some 58 percent of high-echelon female talent experience career interruptions that sidetrack them from traditional lock-step linear career paths, penalizing earning power, sabotaging long-term promotional prospects, sapping ambition and causing many women to switch employers or quit work altogether.

Since our original 2005 study, a growing number of influential companies have fundamentally changed their views about the value of female talent, putting into place policies that support and sustain women's ambition despite the detours that life throws in the way.

For example, in 2004, the overwhelming reason for accomplished women to downshift from their high-speed career track — or even get off entirely — was childcare. Now, programs like Goldman Sachs' "Great Expectations" Maternity Strategy strengthens the firm's comprehensive maternity leave with "Keeping in Touch" days for returning mothers, assigning maternity mentors (women who have successfully returned to work after childbirth), and training managers to support their employees throughout the maternity cycle. Similarly, Intel's New Parent Reintegration Program supports new parents — both fathers and mothers — struggling with the transition back to full-time work by permitting them to coordinate flexible work arrangements, including telecommuting and part-time and staggered hours, for as long as they and their managers agree.

But our new survey, which used the same questionnaire and sampling a similar pool of women, discovered that the ground had shifted.

Although childcare is still the main impetus for off-ramping, eldercare is becoming an important concern, cited by 30 percent of 2009 respondents compared to 24 percent in 2004. The bump is likely due to demographics, as a larger proportion of the American population moves into old age. And while off-ramping for childcare tends to occur at the mean age of 31, when a woman is at the beginning of her career trajectory, off-ramping for eldercare hits baby boomers at the peak of their powers, sucker-punching their careers and prematurely eradicating a company's top talent. That's where programs like Moody's Backup Childcare and Eldercare makes a huge difference. Through a partnership with Bright Horizons, a national provider of work-life services, the program offers employees up to 20 days of care, at rates far below the average market price. Employees are even able to utilize the eldercare program from other states; for example, a New York City-based employee with a sick mother in Florida can request a caregiver to visit her mother in her home.

But that's not all. Over a quarter of the women in our sample were single and 38 percent of them were childless. Yet even without the pulls of childcare, these women off-ramp in significant numbers — 14 percent of single, never married women have taken a break at some point during their careers, as do 31 percent of childless women. Moreover, 44 percent of childless off-rampers cited an unsatisfactory or disappointing career as a major factor in their decision to depart, while 28 percent said they felt stalled.

No matter what their reason for taking a break, the vast majority of highly qualified women want to return to work. Yet just 73 percent of highly qualified women who want to get back to work succeed in finding a job, and only 40 percent of these were able to find full-time, mainstream jobs.

With the majority of college degrees going to women, the face of future talent is predominantly female. Rather than stand by as the off-ramp undertow wreaks havoc on the career ambitions of their accomplished women employees, corporations have a unique opportunity to throw them a lifeline. Realizing a woman's potential for a non-linear career path is only the first step. What can your company do to attract and retain the best and brightest over the long haul?

This post was written with Carolyn Buck Luce.

Carolyn Buck Luce is the Global Life Sciences Sector Leader for Ernst & Young in New York and co-founder of the Hidden Brain Drain Task Force.

Provided by Harvard Business Review—Copyright © 2010 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.

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