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Amy Joyce: Life at Work

Workplaces: Prepare for Reentry

Studies Show That for Women, Taking Time Off Takes a Toll on Careers

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page F06

Renee Blair and her husband always agreed that she would take extended time off from her career when they had a baby. So when Blair gave birth to little Logan in October 2003, she left her job as a program manager for the District government to take care of him for a year. As she started to look for work again, she applied for positions at the senior management level, a step up from her previous jobs, because she thought she had the experience.

However, coming back into the workforce was not as easy as she expected.

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"I wasn't really that concerned about my reentry into the workforce because it wasn't a long period of time to take off," she said. "But now that I'm on this end of it, I'm starting to see that perhaps it has had an effect on my career."

Blair had spent more than three months on an intensive job search when she was offered a senior management level position with a large hospitality company. The staffing agency that was recruiting her called to say she would be a perfect fit and offered her a good salary. One hour after the conversation, Blair received an e-mail confirming their verbal agreement, but the annual salary was $25,000 less. When Blair asked why there was such a big discrepancy, she was told (probably in a fit of too much honesty) that management would offer only the lower salary because she took a year off.

"I'm pretty flabbergasted," she said as she was still deciding what to do. "Maybe I won't be as forthcoming that I've been off work for a year. You can see on my résumé when my previous position ended, but maybe I won't be as upfront to mention it first."

Blair did not take that position but ended up with a job as a senior program manager at Blue Cross Blue Shield. She started March 7 and is happy with her new job. But, she said, the whole process took much longer than she expected. "I thought I'd be working January 3," she said.

Blair may have had a particularly hard time because she was trying to move up as she returned to work, but even women who are looking to simply return to jobs comparable to those they left can run into trouble. Women who take time off from their careers to have or raise children, even a relatively short time, often come back to work with lower salaries and less responsibility, according to the Center for Work-Life Policy, a New York-based organization that advocates workplace policies that promote personal and family well-being. Now that women are such a large and growing part of the workforce, companies must change the way they deal with their female workforce and women's career paths, the organization says.

The center formed a task force called "The Hidden Brain Drain: Women and Minorities as Unrealized Assets" to try to change how women fare when they return to work. Nineteen global companies have joined the task force, and in the summer of 2004, Ernst & Young, Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers sponsored a survey to investigate what the group calls on-ramps and off-ramps in the lives of highly qualified women.

For the study, 2,443 women and 653 men ages 28 to 55 were interviewed. Respondents had earned a graduate degree or a college degree with honors.

"The good news of this research is that women really aren't dropping out," said Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder and president of the Center for Work-Life Policy. "Sure, they're leaving for short amount of time, but they can't wait to get back in. . . . Not only do they need to go back to work because they have financial responsibilities, but they love their work."

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