Life at Work

Developing Boomerang Mothers

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 11, 2007

Jennifer Allyn has a job at PricewaterhouseCoopers that didn't even exist until recently: director of gender retention and advancement.

Parse the human-resources jargon, and you'll discover she was hired to find ways to persuade highly skilled and experienced female managers to return to work after maternity leave -- no matter how many years that may take.

We've all seen them disappear from desks around us. But now some companies -- mostly large, influential ones -- have begun to replace informal arrangements to get women back at work after having a child with written policies and systems. PWC is among them.

"We can't run our business without women," says Allyn. "Fifty percent of the talent pool in the last two decades is women. That's who's studying accounting, who's going to college."

Last year, Allyn introduced PWC's Full Circle program, offering women up to five years of leave -- without pay or health benefits. The company pays for training or certifications to keep the women on top of their field, invites them to company events and gives them a mentor who will keep them clued in to happenings at the accounting firm. Since its start in July, 16 women have been approved. Allyn expects to have 25 to 30 enrolled by the program's one-year anniversary.

"It benefits us to make this happen," Allyn says. "Just imagine the kind of loyalty we can inspire."

Booz Allen Hamilton, Goldman Sachs and Ernst & Young are among the businesses doing the same, offering unusual support and accommodations more than a dozen years after the Family and Medical Leave Act forced companies to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to new moms.

"There's a feeling among companies that there is a huge investment they make of their top talent. And they've all experienced women -- and men -- leaving who they didn't want to leave," says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute.

At PWC, the onslaught of accounting regulations brought on by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act meant the firm could not afford to lose experienced people who could handle the complicated work. Not to mention the $80,000 it costs to hire and train a replacement.

It sought expertise in Allyn, hiring her away from Catalyst, an organization that studies women at work.

Jeanne Boram might never have found her way back to Booz Allen had it not been for its ComeBack Kids program. She was at home for four years to raise two children born a year apart. When Boram, who had been a senior consultant before quitting, decided she was ready to work again, she could only find temporary positions that paid well below what she had earned. It was as if she had lost all her skills as soon as she picked up her babies.

"It was only a couple of years," she says, "but it was a crucial couple of years."

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