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Seventeen years ago, Barb Butler was a highly trained and well-respected engineer at General Electric with more than a decade of experience, making the same amount of money as her husband, who also worked at GE. Then they started a family. Then her husband began to move the family every few years to keep climbing the corporate ladder.

Unable to find new work with every move, or find employers who gave more than lip service to flexible work, with no family nearby or a consistent community of support as they moved, and concerned about the quality of child care for her daughters, Butler felt she had no choice but to opt out of the workforce.

She just never dreamed how difficult it would be to try to opt back in.

Her professional network had gone cold. Her skills needed updating. And some companies couldn’t get past the gap on her resume. “That gap was just insurmountable,” she said. “I would go on interviews, but some companies didn’t want to take the next step. I just didn’t look good enough on paper.”

She had worked for a time as an engineering contractor when her husband was posted to Australia, and loved it, she said, feeling valued and accepted despite the years out of the workforce. It’s when the family returned to the United States to Erie, Pennsylvania, in 2013 that she hit a wall. “American companies seem to really like people who’ve worked all-in.”

Butler is among the roughly one-third of all college-educated women in the United States who will leave the workforce at some point to care for children or aging parents, research at the Center for Talent Innovation has found, as workplace cultures continue to reward “all in” work and as women are still largely expected to be primary caregivers.

Courtesy of Center for Talent Innovation report: Off-Ramps and On-Ramps Revisited
Courtesy of Center for Talent Innovation report: Off-Ramps and On-Ramps Revisited

In 2007, there were more than 70 programs in the U.S. designed to help highly skilled women like Butler who’d taken a detour out of the workforce to “onramp” and get back in. Then the financial crisis hit, and now, only a handful remain.

“So many people lost their jobs in the recession. What we heard again and again was, ‘We’re not hiring anybody. So no, we’re not interested in women who’ve been out of the workforce for awhile,’” said Laura Sherbin, a labor economist and director of research for the Center, a nonprofit think tank that promotes diversity in the workforce. “An interesting wrinkle, however, is that now, so many people have gaps in their resumes after the recession, it may become less stigmatized.”

Anant K. Sundaram, a professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, co-directed one of the most successful onramping programs called “Back in Business: Invest in Your Return,” until the corporate funding dried up in the recession.

“It’s an idea we haven’t given up on,” Sundaram said. “Especially when you see that the majority of undergrads today women. The majority of students in graduate schools are women. In 30 years, there’s been a massive gender shift in the highly educated population in this country. We know the nature of the workforce is changing. So a program like this is only more relevant.”

And perhaps now, he said, seven years after the program shut down, companies may finally be ready for it.

“The program was way ahead of its time. Companies were enthusiastic. But it’s one thing to be enthusiastic. It’s another to be ready. We found we began to rub up against ‘administrative heritage’ – certain organizations define the nature of work in a certain way, like the need to constantly travel, to have client meetings, even if a lot of it could be done online or by telephone. The nature of work is changing from an 8 to 5 world to more of a task-oriented world. Yet organizations weren’t quite there yet.   And a person who comes in with a non-traditional background … it becomes tough to place him or her.”

Courtesy of Center for Talent Innovation
Courtesy of Center for Talent Innovation

Economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, who heads the Center and who has studied the push-pull phenomenon that drives women from the workforce, said organizations failing to adapt not only policies, but attitudes, to a changing workforce is a big part of what “pushes” women out.

“We found that the average offramper was someone who felt discouraged at work,” she said. “If someone was on track, given opportunities, appreciated for their talent, and they had a nice sense of momentum to their careers, they didn’t off ramp, no matter how many kids they had. It was when someone was passed over for promotion, or felt they were on a slow road to nowhere that staying with that one-year-old looked more appealing.”

Hewlett calls offramping not only a “hidden brain drain,” but a “Mommy track,” and a “Daughter track.” Her reports found that eldercare is second only to child care as the reason why women felt compelled to leave the workforce for a time.

Like in the U.S., about one-third of all women opt out of the workforce at some point in Germany, Hewlett has found. Nearly 60 percent in India do, and an astounding 74 percent of women opt out in Japan, where many women are given “Happy Retirement” parties once they become engaged.

And contrary to the popular mythology that these women “were just floating off into the sunset,” Hewlett said that more than 90 percent wanted to get back into the workforce, like Butler. But only 40 percent were able to return to their careers of choice. “These women were very frustrated,” Hewlett said by what she called this “gendered reality.” “There was a lot of stigma attached to their resumes, attached to the world of care.”

For Barb Butler, part of the stigma is embarrassment. “My husband and I didn’t negotiate this very well. When the kids were small, he felt he needed to commit to his career. We didn’t make the decisions as ‘we,’ we made them about ‘him,’” she said. “So I went ‘all in’ as a mother. I’m happy and proud of my daughters. But maybe I wasn’t the best role model for them. I feel like I need to be my best self for them now.”

Once she began her job search, Butler, now 48, met with recruiters, sent out resumes, started an online master’s program in engineering and pounded the pavement for months, looking as far away as Cleveland and Buffalo for work. She’d just about given up when, after eight months of looking, a small electronics manufacturing firm contacted her about a position. She’s making less now than she did the day she opted out – and four times less than her husband. But she grabbed it. “I thought the most important thing was to get back in … somehow,” she said.

And part of the stigma is confronting people’s often ambivalent attitudes about working mothers, that mothers either belong at home, or that they can’t be committed to work. Gail Gretz, who has also struggled to return to work after taking two extended breaks from the workforce to care for her children, said one prospective employer condescendingly asked if she was ready to take off her “Mommy Hat.”

“The unprofessional and downright illegal questions – and tone – astounded me,” she said of the line of inquiry into her personal life. “But I really wanted that specific job … so I put up with it.”

Courtesy of Center for Talent Innovation
Courtesy of Center for Talent Innovation

Both Sundaram and Hewlett predict onramping programs will come back into vogue out of necessity, with a tighter labor market, an increasing global demand for skilled workers and technology slowly changing the nature of work. Carol Fishman Cohen, of irelaunch, a company that helps people return to work, said, despite many programs shutting down, others have emerged or thrived, including Harvard’s A New Path for business executives, and the National institutes of Health Career Reentry Grant Program, and, in the UK, the Daphne Jackson Trust Fellowship to return women to science, technology, engineering and math careers.

One of the emerging programs, the “Back to Work” program at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto, is thriving. Now in its fifth year, the program gets more than 200 applicants for the 35 available spots every year, said Beatrix Dart, associate dean of executive degree programs and executive director of the Initiative for Women in Business.

The program draws women like Katharine Ashworth, who worked for American Express in New York until the family moved out of the city after 9/11, and JoAnn Schneeberger, who worked in international law in South Africa for years until the family moved to Canada. “I thought I’d jump off the hamster wheel and get the family settled,” she said. She didn’t realize how hard it would be to get back to her career. She’s been looking for three of the five years she’s been out. “I’ve run into blocks at every level.”

Over the course of three months, the women come in three to four days a month to learn to update their business, social media and leadership skills. They do intensive self assessments, looking at their skills and what they have to offer. And, finally, they brush up on practical skills like interviewing, writing a good resume and negotiating a salary.

The program runs between 9 am and 3 pm, so women can still drop off and pick kids up from school. And child care is offered on site for small children.

More than 70 percent of the women who’ve gone through the program have successfully returned to work, Dart said, many for one of the five major Canadian corporate sponsors of the program, who get to know the women through networking events and independent consulting projects the women undertake as part of the program.

“At first, the feedback we got is that maybe the companies thought they were doing us a favor. But now, they’re our biggest supporters. They tell us how absolutely thrilled they are,” Dart said. “They can’t believe how loyal, how committed and productive the women are. And the women are so grateful for a second chance, there’s a little bit of, ‘I want to show you I’ve still got it.’”