Getting Back in the Game

A new study offers some important suggestions to ease the reentry of older women into the executive workforce

Monica McGrath is an adjunct assistant professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She's the former director of leadership development for the Wharton MBA program and was instrumental in the design and delivery of Wharton's first leadership course for women, "Women in Leadership: Legacies & Opportunities."

Marla Driscoll has 20 years of consulting experience in the areas of planning, operations improvement, and IT across a variety of industries. She has been an independent consultant for two years and earned an MBA from Wharton in 2001.

Mary Gross is a director with Merrill Lynch Investment Managers, where she's head of learning and development. A 2002 Wharton graduate, Gross has over 20 years of experience in the financial services industry, working in the areas of human resources and finance.

McGrath, Driscoll, and Gross recently co-authored a study, Back in the Game: Returning to Business after a Hiatus, which was completed under the advisement of the Wharton Center for Leadership and Change Management and through the support of the Forté Foundation, an Austin (Tex.)-based nonprofit organization working to advance women in business.

Through a survey and focused interviews, the research team examined the challenges these women -- 81% of whom held MBA degrees -- faced when they return to work after "stepping out" of the workforce for a period of time. The authors also provide recommendations that women, as well as employers and universities, can use to facilitate their reentry into business.

McGrath, Driscoll, and Gross recently spoke with BusinessWeek Online reporter Jeffrey Gangemi. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: What motivated you to do the study?


We did it for two reasons. First, we saw our friends, peers, and students languishing without being able to reenter the workforce. That impacted us on a personal level, so we wanted to see why these bright, energetic, creative women weren't able to find work again.

The second reason is that we had our own experiences and assumptions, but we wanted to see if they matched those of other professional women, particularly MBAs. Drawing conclusions would allow us to eventually stimulate change.

Q: When should a woman time a step-out?


Timing is really up to the individual person, but planning for the eventual step-out should be part of the ongoing leadership-development game plan. That's what we're finding that women aren't doing. The best way to prepare is to establish a network before stepping out and maintain it while out.

Q: Is it possible to time a step-out to coincide with business school?


Several of our survey respondents did that. There were women who started school as they were stepping out, and there were others that began school after a couple of years of being out to coincide with stepping back in. Business school helps prove to employers that a woman has up-to-date skills, even if she has been out of the workforce for the past five years.

Q: What can MBA programs do to help women plan and execute step-outs?


About 90% of our survey respondents want their university to supply targeted career resources for alumni returning to work. Because most universities have career resources that are aimed at people just graduating, the issues are often different.

McGrath: In reality, career centers aren't offering much support, don't have the resources dedicated to this, nor do they have an educated counseling staff member who knows what the challenges are. Universities need someone to believe that the service is important enough to devote funding to it.

Q: What can be done to help universities get the hint?


By presenting our findings to the Forté membership and at the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC) conference, we've generated some interest within university career centers. They are looking to us for guidance.

Q: Why do women tend to go into smaller companies when they reenter the workforce?


In general, women who work for large corporations have found it difficult to have meaningful balance in their lives. The challenges that they face before they step out evoke such powerful emotion that they often decide that they want nothing to do with a particular industry or company, and they decide to make a shift. About 61% of the women we surveyed switched industries consciously.

Q: Isn't it good for business that women join smaller companies?


It's great for small companies. It's not good for large corporations, because if they're not attracting and retaining the best people, then it adversely affects them. If large corporations are expecting to attract women to their business, then they'll need mentors within business.

Q: Why were some of your respondents more successful than others?


[Those who were successful] often stayed in contact with their work colleagues, and in some cases, went back to their previous employer to pick up some project work.

McGrath: Many women think if there isn't a program in place to help them with part-time or alternative job situations, then it can't exist. In fact, women can work with their employers and within their networks to find or invent these opportunities.

Q: How can business schools attract more women?


If women who attend business school can't get back into their industry after taking time to raise a family, then what good is it? Until the biological imperative [of having children] changes, this is going to be an issue that we need to address.

Gross: We all need to take off our blinders and challenge our assumptions. It's easy for a manager to say that a woman can't do a job telecommuting or that they can't manage people unless they're in the office 50 hours a week. Looking for solutions instead of creating walls is something we all need to focus on more.

Driscoll: It's time for business schools to put their money where their mouth is and really live up to their commitment to lifelong education. There are decades after students get out of business school, and the schools need to dedicate more resources to improving their services for alumni.

Q: What else should we know about this topic?


We should raise awareness while people are in business school about how alternative career paths are O.K.

McGrath: Men and women alike are finding themselves in their 50s with up to 20 years of work left. Twenty years is a long time that offers the possibility of making significant contributions. MBA programs need to stop ignoring older women in their recruiting.

Gross: Many of our survey respondents said they want to talk with people who have done this already. It would be great for universities who have kept a large database to connect alums to each other for networking about these kinds of issues.

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