After caring for her twin sons full-time for five years, last fall Meredith Soree was ready to re-enter the work force.
To find a part-time job with the flexible schedule she required to take care of her family, Soree, 37, turned to Mom Corps, an Atlanta-based flexible staffing firm. The firm helped her find her current position as a senior human resources manager for Newell Rubbermaid, where she arrives at varying times in the morning depending upon her sons' school and camp schedules and leaves at 2 p.m. each day to care for them.
"I wouldn't have found this posted somewhere," she said, attributing her new employment to Mom Corps, which she says helped her get in front of an employer who understood the importance of flexible work arrangements.
These days, women in Soree's situation have extra resources at their disposal, thanks to a cottage industry that has sprung up over the past few years of career counselors, business school courses and flexible staffing firms catering to women re-entering the work force.
Nationally, 37 percent of highly qualified women -- and 43 percent of highly qualified mothers -- take time off of paid work at some point in their lives, according to "Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success," a 2005 Harvard Business Review report by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founding president of the New York-based Center for Work-Life Policy, and Carolyn Buck Luce, a senior partner at Ernst and Young. The report found that 93 percent of such women want to return to their careers, but of those, only 74 percent manage to do so.
Connecting Women to Work
But they are finding more roadside assistance while looking for the on-ramp.
"It's really remarkable, the number of organizations that are trying to help women re-enter the work force," said Constance Helfat, faculty director of Back in Business, an 11-day program run by Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business to prepare professionals to rejoin the labor market.
Helfat said the burgeoning industry of niche career coaches and flexible staffing firms remains small, characterized by small companies, sole practitioners and nonprofit organizations often led by women who recognize the value of the business opportunity.
One Denver-based firm, 10 til 2 -- named for the hours when many moms are available to work -- was founded in 2003 to match companies with part-time staffers and has already expanded into 20 franchises in 11 states.
Experts say the lagging economy is driving a demand for such workers.
"Companies are very reticent to add to head count and there are hiring freezes, so many positions are unfilled, but the work loads are still there," said Nadine Mockler, co-founder of Flexible Resources, a Stamford, Conn., staffing firm specializing in nontraditional work arrangements whose majority of clients are mothers.
More Moms Than Flexible Jobs
Still, owners of flexible staffing firms say the interest from moms in part-time work, consultant contracts and other forms of nontraditional employment continues to outpace the demand from employers.
"My message to the women out there is to be patient," said Allison O'Kelly, CEO of Mom Corps. Since the company launched in 2005, 25,000 women have registered to work on its Web site; several hundred have been placed in employment.
One factor driving the demand is the greater number of highly educated women. According to a 2005 U.S. Department of Education report, the percentage of master's degrees in business management earned by women rose from almost 4 percent in 1969-1970 to 41 percent in 2000-2001. In the same time period, the percentage of law degrees earned by women rose from around 5 percent to 47 percent.
For highly qualified women, the decision to take time off from paid work is costly; the Harvard report found that "off-ramping" for three to four years costs such women 37 percent of their earning power. In March, the difficult decision grabbed headlines with the publication of Meg Wolitzer's novel, The Ten-Year Nap, which portrays successful women who, 10 years after deciding to stay home with their children, question their choices.
Business schools like Helfat's are also stepping in to fill the need.
Last year, for example, Swiss financial giant UBS began funding a free "Career Comeback" program to help professional women sharpen their business skills and networks. The two- to three-day course is now offered at the Australian Graduate School of Management, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, London School of Economics, Singapore Management University and Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
In 2006, Harvard Business School launched "A New Path," a $5,000 weeklong program to prepare women to re-enter the work force.
Dipping Into Moms' Labor Pool
Large companies -- especially in the financial sector -- are increasingly recognizing the value of the labor pool of highly qualified women who take time off; Deloitte and Touche, Goldman Sachs, Ernst and Young, Lehman Brothers and PricewaterhouseCoopers have all developed programs to recruit them back.
But the Harvard report found that just 5 percent of highly qualified women want to return to their previous employers, a finding some researchers say indicates that they left feeling "underutilized and underappreciated."
Nancy Collamer, a career coach in Old Greenwich, Conn., who specializes in helping moms re-enter the work force, said most of her clients end up freelancing, consulting or crafting agreements with small businesses because the full-time corporate jobs they are offered are not flexible enough.
"These women look at the jobs out there and say they don't want to work 60 hours a week," she said.
Founders of flexible staffing firms say the Internet has radically changed the nature of work, making it possible to craft more flexible arrangements such as work from home, but it's a matter of persuading companies to allow it.
O'Kelly, of Mom Corps, said companies are starting to change and she expects flexible work arrangements to become more common, thanks to the path moms are trailblazing.
"Technology enables us to have more flexibility, and now that the tools are there, people are demanding it," she said. "Right now it's the moms out there who are really saying they need it."
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Research conducted by the World Health Organization, the United Nations and the World Bank released today concluded that maternal death rates are declining too slowly to meet international goals set in 2000.
The new maternal death statistics show there has been virtually no progress in reducing deaths for the past 15 years in countries where mortality rates are already the highest; sub-Saharan African nations, for instance, account for more than half the world's maternal deaths.
The international agencies say universal access to reproductive health services must be prioritized to reverse the trend.
The report follows the release of studies that found that abortion rates dropped sharply between 1995 and 2003, particularly in places where abortion is legal.
Released to news outlets on Thursday, the joint research from the World Health Organization and the New York-based Guttmacher Institute found abortions worldwide had declined to 29 per 1,000 women of childbearing age in 2003 from 35 abortions per 1,000 in 1995. The lowest rates were recorded in Western Europe, where abortion is largely legal and women have better access to contraception.
The lack of safe abortion services in many developing countries continues to take a toll, killing about 67,000 women annually and hospitalizing 5 million others, according to the report, published in the Oct. 13 edition of British medical journal The Lancet.
In an accompanying analysis, Guttmacher concluded that safe access to abortion and increased family planning and reproductive health services could curb the toll and substantially reduce maternal mortality. The research organization estimates that more than 100 million women worldwide have unmet needs for contraception.
Timed Delivery of Data Load
The twin load of global data on women's health came in a week when the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee had been scheduled to hold hearings on a U.S. policy barring aid to foreign clinics that provide abortion-related services or advocate for change in local abortion laws.
The federal policy is coming under growing political criticism following its repudiation by both houses of Congress over the summer.
Officially called the Mexico City Policy because it was first announced by President Reagan at the International Conference on Population in Mexico City in 1984, detractors call it the global gag rule because it bars funded groups from not only providing abortions but also from counseling women on abortion and lobbying on the issue.
Due to the death from breast cancer of a committee member, Rep. Jo Ann Davis of Virginia, the hearings are being rescheduled and are likely to be held in late October.
Critics say the policy has hurt family planning access in Africa.
"The global gag rule has totally dismantled the tradition of family planning services in Kenya," said Joachim Osur, one of the experts invited to Congress to testify at the hearings and to brief committee staff members yesterday.
Osur oversaw medical services for Family Health Options Kenya when the affiliate of the International Planned Parenthood Federation stopped receiving U.S. funds after refusing to agree to the gag rule.
Shuttered Clinics and Programs
He told Women's eNews that the loss of funding forced him to close clinics that provided 100,000 women annually with gynecological and family planning services and screenings for breast cancer, cervical cancer and HIV-AIDS.
He also shuttered the organization's training program for counselors who provided family planning services; education and mobilization efforts to encourage public use of family planning services; and a network of 1,000 health workers distributing contraceptives to 200,000 women annually.
Wendy Turnbull, senior policy research analyst at Population Action International, a Washington-based international family planning group, says U.S. funding for family planning assistance is down 41 percent since its high-water mark in 1995.
"A lot of nongovernmental organizations doing reproductive health are, if anything, just holding the line."
Under the rule, foreign nongovernmental organizations must sign pledges that they will not provide abortions, counsel or refer women on the procedure, or lobby to make abortion legal or more available, even if the costs of those services are funded from separate sources.
The Senate voted to overturn the policy in its entirety in September, while the House passed provisions that restore U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) shipments of contraceptives to foreign organizations that refuse the terms of the policy.
Turnbull said there is not yet enough political support for a full repeal of the policy in the House and President Bush has promised to veto even the contraceptives exemption, which enjoys broad bipartisan support.
Ellen Starbird, assistant director of USAID's Office of Population and Reproductive Health, said the agency had successfully allocated all of its funding to organizations that agreed to comply with the policy "with an emphasis on the countries where the need is greatest." USAID is the largest international family planning donor in the world, she said.
Policy Start in Reagan Administration
President Reagan first instituted the rule to attack abortion with a policy that was easier to implement than a domestic ban. He announced it during the lead-up to his 1984 re-election and it has been in effect under every Republican president since.
President Clinton repealed the policy, but President George W. Bush reinstated it as his first official act in office on Jan. 22, 2001, the 28th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision that affirmed the legality of abortion in the United States.
The policy has broad opposition from Democratic presidential candidates.
Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Christopher Dodd and Barack Obama co-sponsored the amendment in the Senate to repeal the policy, a vote which Sen. Joseph Biden skipped. In the House, Rep. Dennis Kucinich voted for the amendment that repealed the ban on donated contraceptives. Former Sen. John Edwards and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico oppose the policy on their campaign Web sites.
While opponents say it is impossible to calculate the number of women affected by the policy, the Global Gag Rule Impact Project, an online database, documents the effects of the policy in Ethiopia, Ghana, the Dominican Republic, Nepal, Romania, Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The project finds that the loss of funding for family planning is reducing the capacities of organizations to carry out other key services for women, such as screenings for cervical and breast cancer, and pre- and post-natal care.
Population Action International's Turnbull says the reduced capacities of these groups is likely to hinder initiatives such as introducing new vaccines which fight the humanpapilloma virus to prevent cervical cancer.
Eighty-five percent of deaths from cervical cancer occur among women in developing nations, according to the National Cervical Cancer Coalition, an advocacy group based in West Hills, Calif.
The project also finds that the policy is undermining the fight against HIV-AIDS at a time when 75 percent of young people infected with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa are female, according to Avert, an international AIDS charity based in the United Kingdom.