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Developing Boomerang Mothers
Some Companies Set Up Maternity-Leave Programs With an Emphasis on the Return

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."

When she heard about ComeBack Kids, she sent in her résumé and was soon hired for a position similar to her previous one.

At Deloitte & Touche, women are also offered up to five years of unpaid leave with no health benefits. Through its Personal Pursuits program, which began last year, women are also given the option of "kitchen table" work that they can do while they are out of the office. That gives them a chance to keep their skills sharp and their toes in the Deloitte water.

As part of a pilot program, Deepa Varadarajan, formerly a manager in the audit practice, was offered the leave when her twin sons were born prematurely in 2004. "I jumped at it," Varadarajan says. "This was a way for me to get first-hand information about what's happening in the market on projects while taking this sabbatical."

The company has paid for credentials she needed and picked a senior manager to be her mentor.

The new programs have already spawned their own jargon. Instead of taking leave, women "off-ramp." When ready to work, they "on-ramp."

"We've all seen the statistics about who dropped out or off-ramped, and it's very hard for them to get back in," says Cathy Benko, national managing director for Deloitte's initiative to retain and advance women. "I'm one of the few career moms in my son's sixth-grade class. I talk to the moms, and they're looking to get back in and now they can't."

Lehman Brothers began its program last year, calling it Encore. "We've spent a lot of time and money recruiting at college campuses and the MBA level. We pay premiums to convince women to move laterally," says Anne Erni, Lehman's managing director and chief diversity officer. "Why not formally recognize women who have off-ramped as a fourth legitimate pool of talent?"

So far, the programs are small. Goldman Sachs has hired about 10 women through its program and Lehman has hired about 20. Deloitte and PWC's extended leaves are open only to women who have received outstanding reviews and have permission from their manager or partner.

The Center for Work-Life Policy, a New York research organization, found that two-thirds of women who left work to raise children want to reenter professional life but think that companies are reluctant to hire them, or will offer them less-stimulating work than they had before.

Most of the women who take leave have every intention of returning to work, but only 74 percent were able to do so, according to the 2005 study.

"We have, over the years, had that concern about losing women," says Billie Williamson, gender equity and flexibility strategy leader at Ernst & Young, which sponsored the study. "But part of this is really helping women feel confident they can continue to succeed at the firm."

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