March 23, 2007

Taking a Timeout

What you should know before you make the jump

(Part 2 of a 3-part series)

Thinking of stepping off the career track? You're not alone. Nearly four in 10 (37%) highly qualified women surveyed report that they left work voluntarily at some point in their careers, according to a survey conducted by Harris Interactive and commissioned by the Center for Work-Life Policy (CWLP). And that doesn't begin to account for the women who want but can't afford to quit.

The fact that women are leaving is easy to quantify, but the reasons for the exodus are harder to pin down. Clearly, having children is a major factor. Of the women who left their careers voluntarily, 43% were mothers. Another 24% said they left to take care of elderly parents or other family members, while 9% left for personal health issues. Then there are the pressures at home. Fully 40% of the women surveyed felt that their husbands create more work around the house than they actually perform.

Just as important as the external issues pulling women out of the corner offices are the internal factors that are pushing them out. Chief among women's complaints were unsatisfying work and the lack of opportunities for significant advancement within their firms.

Before you make that jump, though, there are several factors you need to consider. First, of course, is the financial impact of leaving the workforce, even if you are only planning to take off for a year or two. You may be prepared for the short-term loss of income when you are not working, but you also have to factor in the long-term effects of leaving your career midstream.

Most women who take even a brief timeout from their careers never catch up to the earning potential of their counterparts--both male and female--who don't leave. Women lose an average of 18% of their earning power when they take an off-ramp, and women in business can expect to lose 28% of their earnings when they come back to work if they are out for less than three years. Spend more than three years out of the corporate world, and you will lose a staggering 37%.

And that is if you are lucky enough to get back into a job you want. Of the highly qualified women who have taken off-ramps during their career, 93% reported wanting to go back to work, but only 74% of the women who wanted to go back managed to find qualified work, according to the report.

Ideally, women looking for an off-ramp should develop a strategy to get back to work before they ever leave, but that's not a luxury most women can afford.

"Not every woman is in a position to be overly strategic at the time of her decision to leave work," says Sandy Southwell, director of research and projects at CWLP. "They are dealing with a set of circumstances at home and work that are shaping the decision."

But as the corporate world wakes up to the valuable asset now sitting on the sidelines, women who want to get back to work are finding more on-ramp opportunities than ever. Leading universities are partnering with major corporations to build educational bridges to fast-track women back into the executive ranks.

For instance, Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business developed its Back in Business program with corporate sponsorship from Citigroup, American Express, Deloitte & Touche and Lehman Brothers, among others. The 11-day program, comprised of four educational modules presented in Hanover, New Hampshire, and New York City, is designed to update and refresh the management and leadership skills of professionals who worked in high-potential careers before leaving the workforce.

Despite the hefty enrollment fee of $12,000, the first session sold out, and the school expects to enroll 45 applicants in its fall program, says Corrie Martin, senior program manager in Tuck's Executive Education department.

"Corporate sponsors see a genuine need to develop new sources of talent," she says. "And companies have a business imperative to create a more diverse workforce."
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