Getting Back On Track

You'd never guess that Mishal Husain is on maternity leave. It's 9:30 on a Tuesday morning, and the attractive 33-year-old BBC World News presenter boasts perfectly coifed hair and is already on top of the day's headlines. Sitting at her dining table in London's chic Hampstead neighborhood with her 4-month-old twins and 2-year-old son, she speaks as assuredly about politics as playpens, and exudes a newscaster's cool confidence even while reading "Where's Wally?" to her kids.

That's no accident. Although the British-Pakistani Husain has taken off 13 months over the past two years to raise her children, she has never considered it a career break. "I've thought of maternity leave as an opportunity to do a couple things I never get to do in my day job," she says. In addition to spending time with her children, that has included presenting a popular British breakfast show and several Christmas specials.

Not long ago, women who took family leave checked out completely--and often never checked back in to the workplace. They raced down "off ramps" when babies were born or elderly parents needed care, but rarely succeeded in building the "on ramps" needed to return. According to a study published in the Harvard Business Review last year, only 40 percent of highly educated American women who take career breaks ever regain full-time employment. Now women like Husain--and the competitive multinationals they work for--are taking a new approach. Rather than treating work as "on" or "off" in the digital sense, the new model views everyone from ex-employees to those on family leave as important assets who should keep in touch, share ideas and even pitch in when feasible. Eleanor Haller-Jorden, head of Catalyst Europe, a research and advisory group for women in business, says: "Women are realizing that success with career breaks is all about keeping your fingers in the pie."

A host of international companies are making it easier for their female employees to stay connected on breaks. These businesses aren't motivated simply by altruism; they recognize that off-ramped women are an underutilized source of talent. With productivity decreasing in Europe's rapidly aging societies, it's one that they cannot afford to squander. The average Western European woman takes nearly two years of maternity leave, and often feels terrified about re-entering a work force continually redefined by new technologies. As a result, most firms now keep in touch with their top female employees on career breaks via regular newsletters and phone calls, says Willem Adema, head of the OECD's Babies and Bosses study. "The important underlying message of consistent calling and writing is 'Please come back'," he says.

Big multinationals like JP Morgan, British Petroleum and Goldman Sachs have fast-growing "corporate alumni networks" that help women on career breaks stay up-to-date on industry issues and maintain vital corporate contacts. They need all the help they can get; the effects of taking just one year off can be seen even 15 years after the fact--in same-job pay gaps of 10 percent. (Europe's highest court ruled in October that women who take parental leave have no legal right to claim as much pay as male colleagues who have not taken time off.)

Many companies recognize that they stand to gain when women use their breaks to bolster their careers in other ways. Brenda Barnes, who quit a top job at PepsiCo in 1998 to reconnect with her kids, didn't just stay at home during her pause, she served as an interim president of Starwood Hotels and held posts on a number of powerful corporate boards. When she was ready to return full time to the work force last year, she became the CEO of Sara Lee.

Global management consultancy McKinsey boasts numerous top women who've taken "nonlinear" career paths that include long breaks. Besides helping the women, says Vivian Hunt, a partner in McKinsey's London office, maintaining these ties gives the company far more recruiting options. Elaine Stock, for example, recently rejoined McKinsey after a four-year break (which she took in part to spend more time with her three children) in order to head its Ireland office. The move was possible only because Stock kept in close contact with ex-colleagues during her absence. In the same vein, McKinsey's recent 80th-anniversary ball in an elite London hotel welcomed not only current employees but also dozens of alums. "This notion of on and off ramps is very dated," says Hunt, who recently returned from a six-month maternity leave. "It's not about exiting and entering--it's about staying in the dialogue all along."

Other firms are launching programs that keep employees who wish to dial back more formally onboard. At international consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, more than 100 women who were once full-time employees now work in an "adjunct" program. The firm slices off discrete pieces of work--often research or proposal writing--for its adjuncts (including some men), who can negotiate not only pay for each project but also the terms: How many days a week must they work? Will the job involve travel? Ani Singh, a 1997 Wharton M.B.A. who left the firm in 2002 and now works as an adjunct in the United States, routinely turns down assignments that will keep her away from her family. Even so, she says, "I still feel like I'm making progress in my career, whether I'm within the formal organization or not." And the firm hopes that when she's ready to return to full-time work, she won't bother sending out résumés. "We want them to think only about coming back to us," says senior VP DeAnne Aguirre. "That's why we put this in place."

When Husain returns to the BBC in January, she's already slated to host its popular "Prime-Time Asia" news program. By staying connected to her colleagues, keeping abreast of breaking news and maintaining a public profile while on maternity leave, Husain ensured that her industry never lost sight of her. "I didn't want to be that person [about whom] people ask: 'Whatever happened to so-and-so?' " she says. Few women do. And thanks to changing attitudes toward family leave, now they don't have to.