Moms and careers: a new way forward

Full-time work or dependency on a husband is a false choice. Moms today can opt out, then relaunch a career.

Women who leave the workforce to stay home with kids are not only committing career suicide, but are intentionally "choosing economic dependency." That's the disturbing message women are getting from "The Feminine Mistake," the new book by Leslie Bennetts.

But are women today really locked into two bleak options: juggling a full-time career while raising a family, or choosing a lifetime of dependency on a husband who might leave her or die?

Thankfully, despite Ms. Bennetts's scare tactics, they aren't. There's a third option: taking a career break and then resuming a career. "Relaunching," as we call it, has emerged in recent years because more employers are looking to replace a soon-to-be record number of retirees. They're also more willing to accept nontraditional career paths, flex time, and working remotely.

Bennetts's negative view of opting out assumes that all mothers can easily work and raise young children simultaneously. Why succumb to economic dependency when you can have it all, all at the same time?

Maybe Bennetts makes this blithe assumption because she's a journalist who has been able to work from home since her children were born, while employing the same fabulous nanny for 18 uninterrupted years.

But what if her job required tremendous face time in the office or two babysitters left in one year or her children had problems that required full-time care, or what if she simply wanted to spend a few years at home full time with her children? Might Bennetts have a different opinion? Maybe she would grasp why women are so drawn to a career path that allows them to be the full-time moms they want to be, but without giving up work forever.

Opportunities for this "relaunch track" are accelerating quickly. Employers and universities are rolling out programs to identify, update, and recruit from the at-home pool, and the media have started portraying relaunching moms more positively. In the face of a looming talent shortage, companies are beginning to recognize this group as a "fourth legitimate hiring pool" says Anne Erni, chief diversity officer of Lehman Brothers, the global financial powerhouse.

With its Encore program, Lehman Brothers is one of the companies leading the charge to recruit from this pool of underutilized talent. Aquent, the world's largest marketing staffing firm, is drawing from the at-home pool as a new source for its temporary-to-permanent and interim staffing programs. Management consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton has created a contract pool of consultants on career break. And financial firms Citigroup and UBS have collaborated with Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business and the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, respectively, to defray the costs of these schools' relauncher updating programs and recruit from the programs' graduates.

We recently spoke at the Conference Board's Women's Leadership Conference, showcasing these cutting-edge efforts to access the at-home pool. Our audience was a room full of mid- to senior-level human resource and other executives, who have historically looked askance at relaunchers with gaps on their résumés and kids at home.

That these professionals are taking the time to attend sessions on the virtues of recruiting from the at-home pool means that relaunching is coming of age. With big, influential companies and universities creating programs and successfully reintegrating at-home moms back into the workforce, other employers have models to emulate. And moms who relaunch their careers inspire their at-home peers to follow suit.

With all the exciting opportunities for women today, the biggest feminine mistake would be to heed the message of Bennetts's "The Feminine Mistake." Now is not a time for fear mongering. Young women contemplating their future career paths need to know that they are not doing themselves a disservice by leaving their careers to stay home.

It won't be long before the pregnant employee is asked, "Are you going on a maternity leave, or are you taking a career break and then relaunching?"

We have never felt so optimistic about the prospects for at-home moms to relaunch careers as we do now.

Carol Fishman Cohen and Vivian Steir Rabin are the authors of "Back on the Career Track: A Guide for Stay-at-Home Moms Who Want to Return to Work," forthcoming in June. Both Harvard MBAs, Ms. Cohen, a mother of four, and Ms. Rabin, a mother of five, relaunched their careers after multiyear leaves at home.

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