by Pamela Weinsaft (New York City)
According to the groundbreaking 2005 article, Off Ramps and On Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success, authored by Sylvia Ann Hewlett of the Center for Work-Life Policy, nearly four in ten highly qualified women report that they have left work voluntarily at some point in their careers. Among women who have children, that statistic rises to 43%.
“What we found most compelling [from the Sylvia Ann Hewlett data] was that 90% of the women leaving for personal reasons, such as to raise a family, intended to come back,” said Jennifer Allyn, Managing Director of Gender Retention & Advancement at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP (PwC).
Three years ago, the firm was re-imagining work/life balance and implementing many new programs to help women get back on and stay on the career track. In talking with employees at all levels in the company, PwC found that there was a significant segment who wanted a longer period away from the career to be fully dedicated to their children but then wanted to come back to PwC at the same or similar capacity.
To address this, PwC created the Full Circle Program, which allows women and men who need to “off-ramp” for dependent care reasons to do so for up to five years with a good faith guarantee that they will be able to return to the firm when they are ready and at the same level if they so desire.
Dani Caldwell, an attorney and manager in the firm’s State and Local Tax practice in the San Francisco office, just completed the Full Circle cycle. Two-and-a-half years ago, she unexpectedly went out on family/medical leave when her 7-month old daughter fell ill. When she was not able to return to work at the end of the statutory 5-month period, she wasn’t sure what she was going to do. “I was thinking that I sadly would have to leave PwC. It was at that time that a couple of partners and an HR person approached me about the Full Circle program. I jumped at the chance as I saw it as a way to stay connected with the firm.”
Stephanie Fitzgibbons, a Commercial Practice Audit Senior Associate in Houston knew that, while she loved working, she couldn’t return to work full-time immediately after maternity leave because of the long CPA hours. After Fitzgibbons voiced her concerns early in her pregnancy, her manager gave her the brochure for the then-new Full Circle program. Fitzgibbons ultimately connected with Jennifer Allyn and together they determined that Fitzgibbons was a good candidate for the program.
“The biggest challenge for a woman who off-ramps for personal reasons is that her identity shifts. There is often a loss of self confidence with respect to the challenges of re-entry The program allows these participants to stay connected as much or as little as they like,” says Allyn.
While off-ramped, the participants are assigned a Partner/coach with whom they can talk about career and personal concerns. The coach is also charged with keeping the participant in the loop on career development opportunities and social gatherings at PwC in the event the participant wishes to participate. “PwC respected that I needed to take care of things but my coach kept me up-to-date on trainings and group gatherings, which allowed me to keep options open. I could avail myself of activities and training as I wanted,” said Caldwell.
Both Fitzgibbons and Caldwell found great benefit in their contact with the assigned partners. My coach had herself been out on maternity leave and understood new motherhood struggles,” said Fitzgibbons. Caldwell said her coach helped her keep up-to-date on state, local, and tax changes. “He even gave me some reading to stay current.” But Caldwell was just as impressed with the support she received from the entire PwC team. “It struck me throughout the program – the encouragement I received from HR, my Partner, and the program coordinator through the periodic contact…I really felt that I was still a valued member of the team. Their energy and enthusiasm made my time out of PwC easier and enjoyable.”
The connection during the time off makes it easier to return to the workplace after the long career break as well. Caldwell said, “It was nice coming back. It was almost as if I never left because I kept relationships with key people.” And to further help with the transition, PwC, in cooperation with 2 Hats Network, an organization that helps companies develop retention programs for high performing women, has put in place a pilot mentoring program, which Fitzgibbons cites for making her return to the office easier. To overcome whatever awkwardness she felt about returning to work, her 2 Hats mentor gave her suggestions for constructive things she could do to give herself more confidence, such as researching clients so she would know what had been going on during her time out of the office.
In the three years since its inception, there have been 55 women who have availed themselves of the program. Three participants have thus far completed the cycle and have returned to positions at PwC. Allyn emphasizes, “The key is customized re-entry…customization based on discussions with the program participant and her coach to determine what the next best step is.” Some women may choose to come back full-time where others may choose to come back on a flextime schedule or doing project work. Upon their return, there are a number of programs at PwC–from networking to their popular Mentor Moms program–which support former program participants in their personal and professional lives.
Fitzgibbons and Caldwell are just two examples of talented women who would likely have “opted out” of their careers–even temporarily–had it not been for the Full Circle program. “All of Corporate America is grappling with the same issues: talent on and off ramping. The programs to address these women aren’t costly. I’d love to see more of them. They make a difference for top talent and are not hard to do,” said Allyn, “The participants of the Full Circle program can step off the career path entirely and still maintain overall career momentum. It is a way to slow down without stopping.”