How to Help Women to Get Back in the Game

Start preparing your comeback at the time you step out!

Women leave high-powered jobs at twice the rate of men. Getting back in is harder than they expect. The brain drain of women managers hurts the women themselves, their employers and their universities.

Dr. Monica McGrath, adjunct assistant professor at the Wharton School of Business in the University of Pennsylvania, wondered if what she saw in the women around her was more widespread. “Peers, colleagues and students who had a terrifi c education had a really tough time fi nding meaningful work,” she told WIHE. It happens on campus as well as in business.

Back in the Game: Returning to Business after a Hiatus” is a study she co-authored with two of her students, Wharton MBAs Marla Driscoll, independent consultant, and Mary Gross, CPA, head of learning and development for Merrill Lynch Investment Managers. They got partial funding from the Forté Foundation, a consortium of business schools, corporations and non-profi ts that support women in business careers.

They posted an online survey and did follow-up interviews of former executives with an advanced professional degree, at least two years out of the workforce and a recent reentry or job hunt. Their findings include ways women can help themselves get back in the game, and ways universities can help them prepare.

Stepping out

If career patterns were designed around women, moving in and out of the workforce would be the norm, with intervals of part-time employment. Though most employers don’t yet think in those terms, lots of women are trying to make it work, both in higher education and in business.

Children are a big reason women step out, but not the only one. Some relocate for a husband’s job. Dual-career couples typically work more than 91 hours a week. Women still carry most of the responsibility at home, adding up to stress no matter how you slice it.

Lack of flexibility, lack of job challenge and limited opportunities for advancement can burn out women managers. Women who are moms and senior leaders want to be good at both. Their family roles make them better managers but it’s less common for their jobs to help them as parents.

One interviewee was about to adopt her second child when she realized she wanted out; she was tired of the hours and stress. Another realized it after a promotion that increased the demands on her time.

Relief, happiness and optimism are common at the time of leaving the job. Quality of life improves. Trusting their MBA or other professional degree to help them back onto a career track, 70% of the respondents felt positive about their decision to leave. Almost half planned to stay out two years or less; almost two thirds, five years or less.

Stepping back in

Optimism that accompanied stepping out plummeted when they started trying to get back in. Potential employers didn’t take them seriously. It’s a diversity issue, with a whole class of qualified applicants dismissed out of hand.

Half described their interviews as frustrating and 18% as depressing. “Negative feelings tend to spiral,” McGrath said. It’s hard to give a good interview when you’re frustrated and depressed.

They identified three main obstacles:

  • Need for updated skills. Business schools offer their alumnae very little in the way of continuing education. Career counseling services focus on new MBAs; even when they’ll talk to alumnae, few understand the challenges of reentry. One felt so discouraged she decided to avoid alumnae events until she was back in a job.
  • Length of time away. Women with advanced degrees and job experience don’t expect to start from scratch just because they took some time out, but many feel interviewers treat them as beginners. Their volunteer and community work don’t count. Adding insult to injury, some get rejected because their MBA marks them as overqualifi ed.
  • Age. Moms who wait until the kids are grown offer employers another couple of productive decades. Although research shows management performance doesn’t decline with age, workers over 50 are the first laid off and the last to be hired. Linking health insurance to employment makes older workers more expensive. Women over 50 have a tough sell.

Shifting down

Most women who reenter the workforce join smaller organizations than their former employers. Some can’t get past the gatekeepers in human resource departments. “They found themselves taking positions that didn’t tap their intellectual or creative resources,” she told WIHE.

Others prefer not to go back into rigid corporate jobs like the ones they left. They choose to trade salary and prestige for work-life balance. “Be open to more job fl exibility, so that we won’t feel the need to step out again,” one advised employers.

Of the respondents who are back in the workforce, 45% are self-employed. Consultants and entrepreneurs may work long hours but have more personal control. Clients don’t fret about their age or the gaps in their resume.

Three of five have changed industries, and more than half have changed functional roles, usually downward. Of the 17% whose new job titles are higher than those they left, only a third gained more responsibility. The VP of a tiny company manages fewer dollars and fewer people than a division manager in a big one.

How universities can help

Business and professional schools in traditionally male fi elds actively recruit women to improve the gender balance. “Ten years later we have nothing to do with them except to ask for money,” McGrath told WIHE. Universities can do much more for their highly educated alumnae, especially in continuing education.

  • Offer a monthly or quarterly speaker series for alumnae to update their skills.
  • Create a certification program to provide a recent credential and help fill the resume gap. Since not all alums live in the immediate area, explore cooperative programs with other universities.
  • Expand career counseling to serve alumnae, with counselors who understand the challenges facing women at reentry.
  • Use alumnae programs to expand networking and mentoring opportunities.
  • Educate yourself about who these women are, not only as alumnae but as potential employees. Even apart from the related issue of tenure-track and adjunct faculty, schools compete with corporations for financial, legal and other professional staff. “Don’t ask what they’ve been doing the last five years, the typical interview question. Ask what they could do,” she said.
  • Educate headhunters and corporate recruiters who come to your campus. “Universities have an opportunity to educate recruiters about this different pool of talent. There’s good, rich work to be done here,” she told WIHE .

If you’re thinking of stepping out

“Start preparing your comeback at the time you step out!” one participant advised. Begin reentry planning before you leave the previous job so you can use the time away constructively to ease your next job search.

  • Network. Establish your professional network on the last job, if possible, and continue to enlarge it during your time out. Keep in touch by phone or email with people in the field, or in your prospective field if you want to change. Get to know some you never had time to meet before. Find mentors if you don’t already have them, and stay closely in touch.
  • Keep pace with industry/discipline trends. Stay involved in relevant associations. Go to conferences and meetings, dressed as you’d dress for the once-and-future job. Read publications and research in your fi eld, like the Chronicle of Higher Education and Women in Higher Education.
  • Maintain and build expertise. Keep up your license or certifi cation and fulfill any continuing education requirements. Determine which new skills will help you in the workplace and find ways to get them, such as classes, volunteer work, part-time work or special projects.
  • Reflect on priorities. Time out is time to reconsider. “Think about who you are, who you want to be, where you want to be, and what you want to be doing—and be prepared for the surprise when the answers change from year to year, the longer you don’t work in a corporate environment,” one advised. “Do things that interest you, because often you find that those things will lead you down a path that you’ll enjoy and grow in.”
  • Craft your elevator pitch. Figure out how you’ll explain clearly and concisely why you stepped out, and how you used that time to become a stronger employee. One said, “Create a way to package what you learned during your time not working that will pique the curiosity of whomever you’re networking with.”

Email her at: mcgrath@wharton.upenn.edu .

Read research results at http://leadership.wharton.upenn.edu/ 1_change/publications/Back_in_the_Game_Executive_Summary.pdf Back_in_the_Game_Executive_Summary.pdf

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