Celebrate Mother's Day by Erasing the Motherhood Penalty

Is motherhood bad for a woman's career?

Even as "Lean In" has become this generation's rallying cry, and women with children head up Fortune 500 corporations, women who take an off-ramp -- i.e., voluntarily leave their careers for a period of time -- find the path to re-entry full of potholes or blocked altogether.

Center for Talent Innovation's research on off-ramps and on-ramps quantifies the motherhood penalty among highly qualified women: Although the vast majority (93 percent) of off-ramped women want to resume their careers, only 74 percent manage to get any kind of job at all and just 40 percent successfully return to full-time work.

Even a relatively short interruption can entail a heavy financial cost. The average off-ramp lasts 2.7 years, although nearly three-quarters of women are ready to pick up their careers after less than two years. And what's worse is that a one-to-two year timeout slashes 14 percent from their salary and at three years, the salary gap compared to those who stay on track rises to a staggering 46 percent.

Money isn't the only thing that women lose. Our research shows that career interruptions lead to a downsizing of aspiration as well as income: 38 percent of women who have never off-ramped describe themselves as very ambitious while only a third of their off-ramping peers say the same. In the wake of an off-ramp, many women lose heart and redefine what they expect of themselves. They downsize their dreams.

Sustaining ambition is key to keeping women on track in their careers. Women often cut back their career goals in response to a "push" from their workplace rather than a "pull" from outside forces. Over two-thirds (69 percent) of women say they wouldn't have off-ramped if their companies had offered flexible work options, such as reduced-hour schedules, job sharing, part-time career tracks or short unpaid sabbaticals. Lack of support from senior colleagues -- 89 percent of survey respondents don't have a sponsor to move them forward in their careers, 68 percent lack mentors and 61 percent lack role models -- further diminishes women's career ambitions.

The result: Companies lose out on top talent both coming and going. High-potential women who off-ramped can't find an on-ramp to steer them back on their career track. And younger female talent who anticipate off-ramping at some point observe the lack of on-ramps and look for a job elsewhere.

What can companies do to address this brain drain of experienced and eager female talent?

There's promising news. This week, the New York Times noted that a growing number of businesses are now targeting this pool of educated workers with midlife internships that will help them rebuild their résumés.

The idea took root nearly 10 years ago when the financial services industry began to create a series of "returnships" -- the term was coined by Goldman Sachs -- to help develop women professionals who were looking to restart their careers after an extended absence from the workforce. Goldman Sachs' Returnship program was one of the first such official on-ramps; launched in 2008, the paid, ten-week program offers returnees opportunities in a variety of divisions and the chance to explore a new area of expertise and learn new skills. It proved to be a rousing success; today, Returnship is being offered globally in five offices in North America, as well as in Bangalore and Hong Kong.

Additionally, according to iRelaunch, a website specializing in return-to-work opportunities, there are now some 20 active programs in the financial services industry worldwide to support and engage women who are looking to return to full-time roles after an extended career break. These range from Bloomberg Women's Returner Circle, offered in New York, London and Tokyo, to Credit Suisse's Real Returns, which runs in the U.S., the U.K., India and Switzerland.

"On-ramping women have a unique value," says Carol Fishman Cohen, the chief executive and co-founder of iRelaunch. As quoted in a New York Times article, she points out that they bring the enthusiasm of a just-out-of-college new hire, the experience of years in the workplace and the added bonus of having moved past the stage of needing future career breaks.

We've noticed that even the tech field, a notable laggard in welcoming women back, is also changing its tune. The male-dominated SET culture is famously unfriendly to women, as we documented in our report Athena Factor 2.0: Accelerating Female Talent in Science, Engineering & Technology. A recent article in the International Business Times noted that it's long been considered "career suicide" to take a break. The article reports, "In Silicon Valley, this is a major reason why women hold just 18 percent of tech positions and just 33 percent of all jobs in the tech industry, according to an analysis of company reports provided by 500 Miles."

But with the spotlight on the need to attract and retain more women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), companies in these fields are increasingly working to strengthen the connections with their off-ramped female talent. With women comprising greater numbers of customers and users, tech giants are realizing that having a workforce that matches the market is a potent source of innovation and are building bridges back to work. Last year, the Society for Women Engineers inaugurated the STEM Re-Entry Task Force, whose seven partnering companies offered mid-career internships in 2015 and 2016, with plans to expand.

In addition to offering flexible and reasonable work hours that accommodate women with families, the programs offered by IBM, Intel and Paypal, among others, teach upgraded technology skills, provide multiple mentors for each returnee, and work with managers to see a timeout as an opportunity rather than a penalty. "Have you taken some time away from the tech world for personal reasons?" asks the description of Intel's Return to Tech program. "At Intel, we believe you have a unique way of looking at the world."

What better way for a company to celebrate Mother's Day than by creating opportunities to give mothers the chance to achieve their full career potential? We'll take that over a bouquet of roses any day.