How Can Companies Attract and Retain Mid-Career Female Employees?

Recent media attention to the so-called “opt-out revolution” – the emerging trend where well-qualified women choose to leave productive careers – paints a simplistic picture of successful women choosing to leave high-profile positions to spend more time with their families. Systematic research reveals several complicating factors that are important for corporations to understand if they are to retain top female talent (Hewlett, Luce, Shiller, and Southwell, 2005).

  • While many women (37%) choose to leave their careers for a short time – a phenomenon the Center for Work-Life Policy terms “off-ramping” – 93% of these women want to return to work. Only 74% succeed, and only 40% are able to secure full-time jobs.

  • Only 5% of women who return to work want to return to their former company; however, 80% wanted to remain in the same type of position, and more than 60% wanted to remain in the same industry. This finding suggests that many of these women feel unsupported by their previous employers.

  • While caring for children is a significant reason for off ramping (44%), other factors, such as eldercare (11%) or pursuing additional education (23%), also lead women to off-ramp.

  • These “pull” factors are not the only reasons women temporarily leave their jobs; a number of “push” factors – features about the job itself – also contribute to this decision. Lack of fulfillment in their jobs (17%) or feeling stalled in their careers are two common “push” factors women cite (23%).

  • On average, women off-ramp for two years and lose 18% of their earning power if and when they return to work. For those who off-ramp for more than three years, this figure climbs to 37%.

These findings make it clear that women’s so-called “choice” to leave their careers is not a simple one, and that most of these women would prefer to continue working if industry would make this possible. In fact, 94% of women who would like to “on-ramp” indicate that they would take advantage of industry efforts to do so.



Research has identified policies that industry can adopt to retain female employees:

  • Flexible work arrangements (FWAs)

  • Flexible career paths (e.g. allowing time off without terminating employment)

  • Re-entry training and support

  • Reduced-hour jobs or job-sharing

These policies stand to benefit everyone, including male employees and employees without children, and initial results among companies who have implemented these policies are promising. In a survey of employees participating in FWAs at Ernst & Young, two-thirds said they would have left or would not have joined the company if such programs had not existed. Similarly, in a focus group with female managers at Johnson & Johnson, all of the women expressed high levels of satisfaction with the company largely because of its FWA policies (Hewlett, Luce, Shiller, and Southwell, 2005). At Best Buy, departments that have implemented flexible work hours have reported approximately 35% increases in productivity (Conlin, 2006).

A Word of Caution:
Research indicates that these opportunities are more readily available to women who have already “made it.” Women in their mid-careers, who often need these policies the most, are not always able to access them. Furthermore, taking advantage of these opportunities is often stigmatized and results in unspoken penalties (e.g. not being promoted). Addressing these barriers is important if such policies are to succeed in preventing the “hidden brain drain.”


  • Conlin, M. (2006). Smashing the clock: Inside Best Buy’s radical reshaping of the workplace. BusinessWeek, December 5.
  • Friedman, S. D. & Greenhaus, J. H. (2000). Work and family – Allies or Enemies? What Happens When Business Professionals Confront Life Choices. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Hewlett, S.A., Luce, C. B., Shiller, P., & Southwell, S. (2005). The Hidden Brain Drain: Off-Ramps and On-Ramps in Women’s Careers. Harvard Business Review Research Report. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation.

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Author: Catherine Ashcraft