Getting Back on Track

It's 4:30 on a weekday afternoon and ordinarily Caterina Bandini would be tracking headlines, tweaking scripts and preparing to take her seat at the anchor desk for the 5 o'clock news at Boston's NBC affiliate. Instead, Bandini, 38, sits with her feet up in her Back Bay apartment, idly watching television as her station's broadcast begins. In October, Bandini will deliver twin girls. For most TV newswomen, childbirth brings only a brief maternity leave--Bandini's predecessor took six weeks--but she's made a different choice. In August, she quit her anchor job, intending to be a stay-at-home mom after her daughters are born. "I always thought it'd be important, at least for the first formative years, to spend as much time as I possibly could with my kids," she says. Bandini hopes someday to head back to a newsroom, but realizes there are no guarantees. "It's very difficult to get back into it--I took a huge risk doing this," she says.

A few years ago Bandini might have served as a prime example of the hot workplace trend: high-achieving women who were "opting out," quitting high-paying, sought-after jobs to raise children, care for aging parents or just escape from the chaos that often accompanies dual-income coupledom. Feminists decried the trend as a step backward, while skeptics questioned whether the statistics really showed women to be quitting in vast numbers. But lately, the debate over "Why Women Quit" has taken a subtle turn. The problem may not be that so many women take a break from salaried life; the more troubling issue is why it's so difficult for them to restart their careers when they're ready. Instead of persuading women not to leave their jobs and to stay on track toward leadership positions, lately the talk among work-family advocates has focused on finding ways to support women's "non-linear" career paths--and to build better "on ramps" for women wishing to return to work after career pauses.

For women who hope to make this transition, there are a growing number of highly visible role models. Last week Meredith Vieira, who famously quit "60 Minutes" to spend time with her children, slid into Katie Couric's old seat at NBC's "Today" show after nine years on ABC's "The View" (page 75). Last year Brenda Barnes, who quit a top job at PepsiCo in 1998 to reconnect with her kids, ascended to become CEO at Sara Lee. This month actress Calista Flockhart returns to network television after five years at home with her child. Meanwhile, a host of companies--investment banks, consulting firms, law firms--are trying to make it easier for nonfamous women to segue back to work as well. These businesses aren't motivated simply by altruism, but by the recognition that these off-ramped women may be an underutilized source of talent. Says Eliza Shanley, cofounder of the Women@Work Network: "There's a general sense among employers that whoever figures this out first wins."

The issue is hardly new: women have been talking about the ideal ways to integrate childbearing and family responsibilities into a high-stress career for dec-ades. The growing focus on the issue--along with the vivid on-ramp/off-ramp metaphor--stem from a research study published last year in the Harvard Business Review. Based on a survey of midcareer women who hold graduate degrees or college degrees with honors, it found that 37 percent had taken extended breaks from work, with the average off-ramper staying home for 2.2 years. Most wanted to return to work, but just 40 percent regained full-time employment. The research put a spotlight on one reason so few women are advancing into corner offices. Says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, president of the Center for Work-Life Policy and the study's lead author: "The old idea was, all you needed to do was fill the pipeline with women and wait around for a couple of decades for them to move through the ranks. [But] there's an enormous amount of leakage from the pipeline--once women off-ramp even for a short while, it's incredibly difficult to get back in."

Since the study appeared, companies have begun rolling out new ways to address the problem. Last November Lehman Bros. invited 75 unemployed women who'd once worked on Wall Street to a back-to-work seminar. Part of the program, called Encore, dealt with technical banking issues, providing a sort of Cliffs Notes version of industry changes they've missed in the past few years. But much of it was focused on nuts-and-bolts concerns like how to talk about your years at home during an interview. Lehman hosted a similar event last spring, and will do another this November. So far, it's hired 16 of the women. Beyond the new hires, the program has helped Lehman portray itself as more family-friendly when visiting college campuses (where interest in Wall Street careers among young woman has been waning). It's also helped managers see beyond the firm's traditional MO of recruiting mostly new college grads, new M.B.A.s and employees of rival firms. Says Anne Erni, Lehman's chief diversity officer: "We've now created this fourth legitimate pool of talent."

Other firms are launching programs to help women ease back to work at a pace that suits them. At 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, who aren't on the payroll but have kept their Booz Allene-mail addresses. The adjuncts (who include some men) can not only negotiate pay for each project, but also the terms under which they'll accept it. How many days a week must they work? Can they telecommute? Will it involve travel? Ani Singh, a 1997 Wharton M.B.A. who left the firm in 2002, now works as an adjunct in Virginia. She routinely turns down assignments that won't let her spend enough time with her child, but she never lacks for new opportunities. "I still feel like I'm making progress in my career whether I'm within the formal organization or not," Singh says. 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--that's why we put this in place," says senior VP DeAnne Aguirre.

Meanwhile, business schools are recognizing that helping women find on ramps could become a profitable market niche. This year several B-schools--Wharton, Harvard, Babson, Dartmouth, Pepperdine--have begun experimenting with on-ramping courses, ranging from Pepperdine's full-blown M.B.A. geared toward mothers with young children (starting in January), to Dartmouth's 11-day "Back in Business" executive education course, which launches next month. Ronna Reyes Sieh, a mother of three who earned her M.B.A. at Columbia in 1998 before logging three years at Morgan Stanley, will attend the Dartmouth program. She hopes not only to jump-start her job hunt, but to learn more about managing a fast-paced job without neglecting family responsibilities. "I want to be connected with other women in the same position," she says.

Amid the growing focus on helping women on-ramp, there's some fear that companies may view the issue as a magic bullet. Like diets, work-family programs can be faddish; long after firms showed bursts of enthusiasm for on-site day care or job-sharing, women still don't seem to be advancing in the numbers some advocates would like. "These are catchy phrases that are trying to give a simple explanation for a piece of what's very complex," says Ilene Lang, president of Catalyst, a research and advisory group focused on women in business. She fears that even women who make it back on track will still suffer from the larger problems facing female professionals, such as a lack of high-ranking role models and lack of access to informal networks.

It's also true that while progressive companies are rolling out on-ramping initiatives, most of the onus for successfully navigating this transition remains on the women themselves. Monica Samuels is an off-ramped Houston attorney and coauthor of "Comeback Moms," a book she conceived after meeting so many female law-school classmates who'd quit working and had no idea how to resume careers. She cites unexpected factors that intimidate would-be on-rampers, from the shift to business-casual dress to the never-ending rush of technology ("What's a BlackBerry?"). Some of these women also discover that their husbands grew content having them at home. To help overcome self-imposed hurdles--including lack of confidence--Samuels suggests small steps, like continuing to list "lawyer" or "accountant" (instead of "stay-at-home mom") on the "occupation" line when filling out paperwork at the pediatrician's office. "Sometimes women completely divorce themselves from people who are working and become isolated," she says. "That's not a good thing to do."

For Bandini, the newly unemployed news anchor, all thoughts of returning to work take a distant back seat to her soon-to-arrive babies. Financially, she's comfortable, thanks partly to her husband, who runs an aviation-equipment company. But even as she prepares for motherhood, her agent, Pam Pulner, will be making sure TV execs don't forget about her. Bandini may wait until her children are in school to begin working again, but Pulner says most of the TV women she represents resume their careers more quickly than they expected. "When she wants to come back, there will be a place for her," Pulner says. With luck and over time, more women will be able to find their places, too.