Of the 37 percent of college-educated women who quit their jobs, many to raise children, 93 percent are ready to go back to work within about two years, according to data published in the Harvard Business Review. But by most accounts, trying to re-enter is highly stressful—from facing down the "What have you done lately?" question to shaking off the kind of insecurity that comes with years of speaking mainly toddlerese. And most women who find new jobs, research shows, end up taking a marked pay cut.
To the rescue, fortunately, is a whole new slew of crash courses specifically designed for reentering women. O checked out a few of them to wrangle some tricks of the trade.
1.Make a Life Map Plan logistics like who your babysitter will be or what you'll do about dinner well before you start looking for a job. "A sense of preparedness will, however subtly, translate to confidence," says Monica McGrath, PhD, adjunct professor of management at Wharton and director of its Career Comeback course. "You might have to field those questions, and it helps to have honest answers at your fingertips."
2. Get Up to Speed "Most people—and companies—overestimate the extent to which industries have changed," says Timothy Butler, PhD, head of Harvard Business School's just-launched New Path program. Read The Wall Street Journal, take a continuing education course—finance, computer skills, spreadsheets—and follow the trade publications. "It doesn't take much to keep up-to-date," Butler says, "and that action proves to management that you're serious."
3. Find Support "The most meaningful results we saw in our program were the connections made among like-minded women," says Constance Helfat, PhD, codirector of Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business Back in Business 11-day executive course. Airing concerns to people who share your goals can reduce anxiety. "I watched a highly experienced woman say she felt incapable, and the expression on the others' faces completely changed her attitude," says McGrath. "She did a 180." You can start your own industry-driven women's discussion club or join a board or blogging community. Also check out the Forté Foundation, a nonprofit resource for working women (fortefoundation.org), for options.
4. Stay Involved Doing contract and volunteer work are great ways to show a potential employer that your acumen and skills have stayed intact (ideally, you would take it on as soon as you leave the workforce). "Charity fund-raising, for example, translates to money-generating potential on a résumé," says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, PhD, president of the Center for Work-Life Policy and author of Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success.
5. Network Like a Banshee "Before you go to bed tonight, write down the names of everyone you know," suggests Butler. "Then, first thing in the morning, try to double that list"—you may suddenly remember how someone on your first list is friends with X, who runs such and such firm, which would be the perfect place to work. Alumni groups—from schools to your last company—are also good sources of contacts. And it's helpful to keep your professional memberships current.
6. Get Your Pitch Down "Long explanations can make you sound defensive, so distill how you want to sell yourself," Hewlett advises. On your résumé, record all contract, committee, and volunteer work, using strong action verbs that stress the skills you honed. Back those accomplishments with numbers if you can (how much money you raised as head of the soccer league's fund-raising drive, how many kids your church mentoring program tutored). In interviews, don't skirt why you opted out of the workforce. "Sell it for what it was—a well-thought-out, value-driven commitment," says Butler. "We're finding that companies are increasingly looking for people with reliable judgment and a sense of accountability."
7. Be Flexible A 2005 Wharton study of reentering women showed that 59 percent joined companies that were smaller than their previous employers, 54 percent changed their roles, and 45 percent started their own businesses. Another trend to note is that financial institutions are beginning to actively recruit returning women.
8. Mind the Gap With a work history that already includes a breach, it's important to ensure that your first new job is a good match. Put together a long list of positions for which you have at least some qualification, and rank the 12 that are most exciting to you. Discuss the results with four people close to you in order to identify the job qualities you find most appealing. Start sending applications only when you're willing to pledge at least a year to the job.