Working Women Move From the 'Off-Ramp'

Four years ago, Robin Scheman ran a $300 million business on Wall Street.

But a decade of 90-hour weeks and transatlantic travel took their toll on this mother of two. So Scheman did what more and more professional working mothers have done -- she took what's called an "off-ramp."

"I was always dealing with things, and I started to realize, I'm not really listening to my kids. I'm not really present with them," Scheman said.

The exodus of working women is now occurring in numbers too large for employers to ignore. According to the Harvard Business Review, 43 percent of professional women with children step off the fast track at some point. On average, they stay off for 2.2 years.

But while 93 percent of these high-powered professionals want to return to work, only 40 percent find an "on-ramp" to meaningful employment.

"You're suspected of having lost your edge. You're not a player anymore," said Sylvia Hewlett, founder of the Center for Work Life Policy.

Faced with this giant leak in the talent pipeline, more employers have begun actively recruiting off-rampers, or trying to ensure they never leave.

After Deepa Varadarajan gave birth to premature twins, she reluctantly told her supervisor at Deloitte & Touche she would have to stop working in the first place.

"I told him, 'I guess I'm just going to have to leave. I cannot pursue my career at Deloitte," she said.

But through a pioneering program the company calls Personal Pursuits, Varadarajan can now take an extended leave without derailing her career. Deloitte helps her stay connected to the company, hoping she'll eventually return.

"Their professional certifications are kept up to date, they are given coaches and mentors, they are connected within the network, invited to Christmas parties," said Cathy Benko, national managing director of Deloitte's Initiative for Retention and Advancement of Women.

Robin Scheman on-ramped through a Lehman Brothers' program called Encore. She now has a part-time job that works for her.

"I get to have two things that I really, really love doing," Scheman said.

And her employer is just as happy with the arrangement.

"How often can you get someone with great maturity and judgment to step into a more junior role and be really happy with it?" said Anne Erni, chief diversity officer at Lehman Brothers.

And who knows? Someday Scheman may want back on the fast track. If she does, Lehman expects to have the inside track on a proven star.

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