Sunday, January 29, 2006

Relaunching mothers

Relaunching mothers - The Boston Globe: "WHEN SANDRA Day O'Connor exits the Supreme Court, it will mark the end of an extraordinary career. The story of the young girl who grew up on an East Texas ranch, graduated third in her class at Stanford Law School, and ultimately became the first woman on the US Supreme Court, has been well chronicled by virtually every news outlet in the country.

What has gone almost unnoticed, however, is the five-year period that this high-achieving woman spent at home. Yes, Sandra Day O'Connor ''opted out" and was a stay-at-home mom. From 1960 to 1965, after the birth of her second son, she decided to leave her legal practice to be home full time. Essentially, she was forced to quit because her trusted baby sitter left. There were no day care centers in those days, and she could not find a competent replacement. Four years later, O'Connor's third son was born, and in 1965 she returned to work.

O'Connor was concerned that her decision to stay home would render her unemployable. In order to keep her foot in the door, she realized she had to do something in the legal field, even if it was volunteer work. She graded bar exams for the State of Arizona, which kept her current in the law. She set up a lawyer referral plan for the local Bar Association, which enabled her to meet other lawyers. She took a position on the county planning and zoning board, became a juvenile court referee, and accepted some small bankruptcy appointments. Finally, she dabbled in politics, becoming the precinct committee person for the Republican Party.

By the end of 1964, she was putting in more hours as a volunteer than if she had been working full time. With two of her sons in school at least part of the day, and a new qualified baby sitter, O'Connor contemplated a relaunch of her career. She decided to apply for a job with the Arizona attorney general; when a Republican came into office, O'Connor was hired, and the rest is history.

The story of Justice O'Connor's stay-at-home years and subsequent career reentry stands in refreshing contrast to more recent accounts of women opting out of careers. Indeed, there's been an implicit assumption that high-powered women who choose to spend time with their little ones will return to the workforce in inferior roles, at best and, more likely, will disappear from the professional landscape forever. As Sandra Day O'Connor's story illustrates, women who opt out can relaunch their careers and, yes, their relaunch might even overshadow their initial professional accomplishments.

If O'Connor were the only successful ''relauncher," however, she'd be the exception that proves the rule. But the fact is that women are opting back in one way or another. Brenda Barnes, currently CEO of Sara Lee Corp., is the poster child for relaunching in the business world. After rising to the post of CEO of PepsiCo North America, Barnes famously quit in 1998 to spend more time with her children. After six years at home, she managed a dazzling reentry-- as chief operating officer of Sara Lee, with a promotion to CEO just nine months later. Again, an extraordinary comeback. But one we expect to see more frequently in future years. As the pool of well-educated stay-at-home moms swells, and as labor markets tighten due to retiring baby boomers and the paucity of workers in Generation X, employers will turn to relaunchers to fill the gap.

A number of corporations have already started to focus on this potential labor pool. Deloitte & Touche pioneered a five-year extended leave program to mentor and then reintegrate Deloitte alums returning from a child-rearing break. Ernst & Young, Goldman Sachs, and Lehman Brothers bankrolled the Center for Work-Life Policy to study women's offramping and onramping and to develop recommendations for making the workplace more accessible to women. In response to the study's findings, Lehman Brothers established their Encore Program to recruit former finance whizzes now at home.

Like Sandra Day O'Connor, relaunchers and those who support them demonstrate that just because a woman takes a few years off doesn't mean her education has been wasted, in economic terms. As relaunchers reclaim their place in offices, courtrooms, and hospitals across the country, feminists and fund-raisers alike will stop fretting about the financial implications of professional women opting out. Ultimately, successful relaunchers will fork over $50,000 donations to their alma maters, just like their linear career peers.

Or be appointed to the Supreme Court."

Carol Fishman Cohen and Vivian Steir Rabin are the authors of the forthcoming "From Playdough to Real Dough: Relaunching Your Career After Taking Time Out to Raise Children."

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