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After spending a period of time at home to raise children, can a woman successfully return to work?

Kristy Rae Williams knew she had an inside lane on the career track when she landed an entry-level position at Bain, a prestigious consulting firm, right out of college.

Armed with a bachelor’s degree in economics and plenty of ambition, Rae Williams spent five years with the company, traveling to meet clients, managing projects and weighing in on internal strategy. It was hard work, and she was good at it.

Then Rae Williams and her husband decided to have a baby. “Up to that point my thought process was that I wanted to continue working after the baby came mainly for financial and security reasons,” she said.

But as the pregnancy progressed, Rae Williams questioned her decision. She and her husband went over all the reasons it made sense for her to return to work, but something about it just didn’t feel right. It wasn’t until the couple began toying with the idea of her staying at home after the birth that she started to feel settled.

“You only live once, and your kids are only little once,” she said. “I will never have the chance to be with them like this again.”

While she is committed to being there for her kids (there are now four of them), the Houston mom hasn’t ruled out returning to work at some point. “It is hard to predict the future,” she said. Financial considerations, like putting four kids through college or the possibility of her husband’s loss of income, might require her to re-enter the work force full-time. As her children become more independent, she might want a more-involved project to occupy her time and energy.

With her impressive resume and extensive work experience, Rae Williams is certain that she will have no trouble finding something when and if she feels so inclined. A growing body of research, however, suggests this confidence might be misplaced, perhaps not for Rae Williams personally, but certainly for stay-at-home moms generally.

Trouble for moms

Many employers shy away from hiring mothers, according to a study performed by Shelly Cornell, Stephan Bernard and In Paik, all professors of sociology at Cornell University. The team asked lab participants to evaluate the resumes and cover letters of pairs of same-gender applicants for entry-level professional positions. The applicants had the same level of experience and qualifications but differed on parental status.

Lab participants consistently rated applicants described as mothers as less committed to work and less qualified for the position. Childless women were recommended 1.8 times more frequently than mothers. When mothers were recommended, evaluators suggested lower salaries than they suggested for equally qualified non-mothers or men. Researchers found that being a father does not negatively impact the way evaluators responded to resumes. In fact, some evidence suggests that fathers are evaluated more positively than non-fathers.

To find out if these results would hold true in the real world, researchers used the pairs of resumes from the lab experiment to apply for real positions throughout the Northeastern United States. As it turns out, real-world discrimination against mothers was more pronounced than discrimination in the lab. Childless women received 2.1 times as many callbacks as equally qualified mothers. Fathers received 1.7 times as many callbacks as equally qualified non-fathers.

Add this to employer concerns about women’s ages and the skill loss that occurs when women are out of the work force for even just a few weeks, and it can seem like the odds are stacked against stay-at-home mothers who want or need to return to work.

But there are ways to address this challenge, according to experts who make a living helping women transition from staying at home with kids to entering (or re-entering) the work force. Maintaining social networks, staying on top of developments in your industry and understanding how to respond effectively to prospective employer concerns about hiring a mother can all help make the transition more seamless, if and when a woman might need to make it.

Stay in the loop

Carol Fishman Cohen of Boston earned an MBA from Harvard Business School and worked as an investment banker before she and her husband started their family. In six years the couple had four children. Between family obligations, volunteering at the school and in the community, and taking care of things around the house, Fishman Cohen felt like she didn’t have the bandwidth to open the newspaper, much less return to work.

After more than a decade at home with her kids, Fishmann Cohen began to toy with the idea of returning to work. But she didn’t have the first clue what was going on in her industry. She subscribed to the Wall Street Journal and for six months she read that paper cover to cover. The information gave Cohen the confidence to speak with people who might be able to help her find work.

“I wasn’t going to embarrass myself by talking about a company that didn’t even exist anymore,” she said.

Fishman Cohen worked in finance for several years before co-founding a company called iRelaunch, which helps men and women transition from being stay-at-home parents to working outside the home. She cautions her clients not to check out the way she did. Just keep on top of changes in your industry, Fishman Cohen said. The habit will keep your mind engaged and your perspectives fresh, she said.

Know your network

Because social and professional networks are the primary way people find jobs, it is important to maintain and develop connections with people. While thinking about returning to work, Fishman Cohen received an invitation to attend the 15th year reunion of her Harvard Business School class. The idea didn’t appeal to her. She worried about being out of place as a stay-at-home parent among CEOs and entrepreneurs. But she went.

“In some ways it is more important for people like us to go to these functions,” said Fishman Cohen. Reunions and alumni functions are a way of developing and maintaining social and professional relationships that can be invaluable when it comes time to actually find a job.

It was at the reunion, the one she really didn’t want to go to, that Fishman Cohen reconnected with a classmate who, several months later, gave her a lead on a job.

Overcoming bias

“The bias (against mothers) is real,” said Whitney Johnson, a Boston-based life coach and author, “but when we encounter it we need to realize that it both is and is not about us.”

“The barriers we perceive can paralyze us,” said Fishman Cohen.

This is why both say that it is essential that anyone returning to the work force (or entering for the first time) has a strategy for asking employers to take a chance on them.

Fishman Cohen’s favorite technique is to offer to work on a short-term contract arrangement. This can be especially effective for people with little or no work history. “It gives the employer an opportunity to evaluate your skills without having to make a commitment to you,” said Cohen. If it works out, you get a job, and if it doesn’t, it is another experience to add to your resume, she said.

What will you do?

Johnson and Fishman Cohen agree that the most important thing is for people to know what they want to do. Both acknowledge that this process of discovery can be difficult. “You can’t assume that because you liked something in college 20 years ago you will enjoy it now,” Fishman Cohen said.

Johnson, whose new book, "Dare Dream Do," encourages people to find and follow their passions, suggests people begin by evaluating innate talents and abilities. “Think about what people compliment you on. What activities make you feel like you are on your game? Think about what your kids are good at because that often will give some clues about what you are good at, too,” she said.

Johnson says to think of talents as ingredients. “Once they are identified, we can go into a process of discovery where we play with the ingredients to figure out what we want to make with them,” she said.

She encourages re-launchers to take pride in the things they love doing. “If you are good at doing something and you love to do it, then it is OK to do it.” In other words, a person doesn’t need to be running a bank or a partner at a law firm to be doing meaningful work.

“If you love planning parties, that is what you should be doing,” she said.

Family considerations

Having family support is an essential component of a successful relaunch, according to Fishman Cohen. When she went back to work, she and her husband had to get on the same page about how tasks she had traditionally done for the family would be reallocated. Who would do the cooking, the grocery shopping, the laundry and cleaning? What slack could he pick up and what jobs might need to be outsourced?

These are conversations partners need to be having before the stay-at-home parent returns to work, she said.

Fishman Cohen notes that occasionally children struggle to understand why their parent wants to return to work.

“The kids, whatever their age, need to understand that your interest in going back to work is not a rejection of them,” she said. One strategy she used was to engage her kids in her process. “I would make a list of some of my skills and then ask them to tell me what they thought the top three were,” she said. “I’d ask them for their opinions about jobs I was looking at.” By including everyone in the family in the process of re-launching a career, Fishman Cohen says, parents can mitigate some of the stress their children may feel about the impending changes.

Johnson says that children benefit from seeing their mothers go after the things they want. “As parents we tend to have strong ideas about what we want our kids to do as they prepared for college,” said Johnson. “If we are going to tell our kids to go after their dreams, they need to see us doing it too,” she said. “Our kids can’t be what they don’t see.”

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