Leslie, Kwoh, The Wall Street Journal, 19 February 2013
McKinsey & Co. wants its moms back.
The big consulting firm is quietly reaching out to female employees who left some years ago—presumably to start families—to see whether they are ready to return.
Details of the initiative, still in its early stages, are sketchy, and McKinsey offered no further information, except to say it isn't a companywide policy. But the effort is one small signal that at least some companies are re-examining some of the most basic terms of women's working lives.
The issue of lost women workers remains a delicate one for many companies, particularly in highly skilled professions, such as consulting or banking. After spending their 20s in high-intensity jobs, many women leave or switch to part-time work when they have children.
Most companies simply acknowledge the departures and move on, but some of them are starting to recruit talented women who are ready to resume work.
McKinsey has publicly grappled with the issue of recruiting and retaining women. In a 2011 interview with The Wall Street Journal, McKinsey managing director Dominic Barton acknowledged that women accounted for just 25% of the firm's "intake," adding that "if you look at the numbers, we're not where we need to be, so we're losing on the talent side."
According to its website, McKinsey has 8,000 active consultants in the field and 24,000 members in its alumni network.
The other Big Three consulting firms have their own programs targeted at current and former female employees. At Bain & Co., a group of partners oversees women's initiatives, staying in touch with female alumni and promoting flexible work options.
More than 100 women, most of them mothers, have returned to the firm since 2000, says Russ Hagey, Bain's global chief talent officer and a senior partner. The firm says more than 80% of its female partners have taken advantage of flextime.
Boston Consulting Group says it focuses heavily on recruiting and retaining women, offering part-time options, mentoring and professional development programs. Lucy Brady, a BCG partner and mother of three, says she was appointed partner while working part-time at the firm, which she has done for 10 out of 15 years.
Several other employers are trying programs to bring former workers back into the fold. Some of them, including Goldman Sachs Group Inc., GS +2.13% have "returnship" programs, paid short-term jobs targeted at professionals who haven't worked for several years.
In most cases, these employees are women who left to have children, says Carol Fishman Cohen, co-founder of iRelaunch, a career re-entry consulting firm in Newton, Mass., and author of a Harvard Business Review article about returnships. "Companies…should be focusing on this pool just like they're focusing on the pool of recent college graduates," she says.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former U.S. State Department official whose essay, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," sparked a furor when it appeared in the Atlantic last July, said McKinsey's Mr. Barton has discussed a plan to win back talented women who "stepped off the track" years ago.
"What Dominic Barton said to me was, 'These women were phenomenally smart, and we lost all that talent, and we're going to get it back,' " she said in a speech late last year.
McKinsey declined to make Mr. Barton available for comment.
A 2009 study of female attorneys in New Jersey, conducted by Rutgers University's Center for Women and Work, found that 29% of the respondents said they left their previous firms because they had "difficulty integrating work with family/personal life."
And in a 2010 McKinsey report, female senior executives cited the "double burden syndrome" of balancing motherhood and work as the main obstacle to women attaining more top roles in companies.
To be sure, reactivating workers who have been off the job for years presents big challenges for both employers and the returning worker.
Returnees must adapt to a changed workplace, with a less-stable workforce and new technology, says Karen White, director of the Working Families Program at the Rutgers Center for Women and Work.
Employers can ease the transition by including returning employees in orientation sessions, says iRelaunch's Ms. Fishman Cohen. However, it is up to the employee to brush up on tools such as Microsoft MSFT +0.98% Excel and social media before coming back to work, she says.
Often, the biggest challenge returnees face is how to regain their confidence while allowing for mistakes. "People coming back, especially high performers, feel this pressure to walk back in the door and expect the same level of performance," Ms. Fishman Cohen says. Instead, they should hold candid conversations with their bosses about an "adjustment period."
Work and family experts often tout moms as "great managers," but skills developed while managing a household don't necessarily translate to the office, Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter said in a recent essay. "Family managers are accustomed to being surrounded mostly by people who are…clearly dependent, unable to function fully on their own," Ms. Kanter wrote. "Spending quality time with people with limited vocabularies doesn't hone complex strategic thinking."
Victor Cheng, a former McKinsey consultant who now advises aspiring management consultants, recalls a push in the mid-1990s to increase the firm's female partners. Typically, M.B.A.s take six to eight years to make partner, so many women attain partner status just as they are ready to have children.
McKinsey offered a slower path to partnership for part-time employees, but the demands were so great that during his time at the firm, Mr. Cheng says, "the joke was that working half-time was still 40 hours a week."
McKinsey still offers flexible work schedules for women, and many offices have networks that provide guidance for mothers. New mothers can participate in a "phase back" program to help them readjust to work after maternity leave.
The firm also publishes a guide for mothers titled "Laptops and Lullabies."