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Earlier this year, Kathleen Harrington Clark, mother of
two daughters and owner of a photography gallery in Houston, Texas, decided she wanted to return to the corporate working world.

But Ms Clark – who graduated from Harvard Business School in 1990 and held several high profile jobs at Compaq, the US personal computer group – needed some help. Her skills, she says, were a bit rusty. “I wanted to get back up to speed on finance, marketing and accounting,” she says. “I was also looking for some cheerleading – I wanted to feel that I could do this, that it wasn’t an insurmountable challenge.”

So when her alma mater announced it was starting a programme designed primarily for MBA mothers such as herself, she leapt at the opportunity. The week-long programme – which took place at Harvard earlier this year – was a mini-MBA intended to refresh the management skills of female alumni hoping to re-enter the professional job market after taking time out of their careers.

Before arriving on campus, participants complete an online quantitative programme in finance and accounting. Once they are at Harvard, they are offered units on finance, marketing and information technology as well as career planning and job interviewing. The programme drew such a strong response that Harvard is planning to offer it again next year and is considering opening it to alumni of other business schools.

Myra Hart, professor of management practice at HBS, says that many women used the programme – which is called New Path – as a confidence booster. “People who’ve been out of the workforce for any period of time have some erosion in their confidence and it’s usually directly correlated with the amount of time they’ve been away,” she says.

“Women come here and see that the fundamentals of business haven’t changed, just the frosting on the cake. For many of these women, it’s about gaining confidence rather than honing their competence.” While most of the 18 participants in Harvard’s programme left the workforce to raise children, some had different reasons. “These women reduced their professional commitment for any number of reasons – one women battled breast cancer, one left her job because her parents were both dying and she was an only child,” says Prof Hart.

Other schools are also introducing programmes designed to help both men and women ease back into the corporate world after time away. This October, Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth will launch Back in Business, an 11-day executive education programme that will take place partly at Dartmouth’s Hanover, New Hampshire, campus and partly in New York City.

“Women who leave [the working world] have trouble getting back because there’s no standard recruiting process or direct channel,” says Constance Helfat, one of the executive directors of the programme. “This [course] provides a jumpstart to the route back in.”

Like the Harvard course, Tuck’s programme covers business basics such as finance, marketing and supply-chain management, as well as units on career planning, how to polish your résumé and how to sell yourself during a job interview.

Additional sessions are meant to redirect participants to new laws and technology, says Prof Helfat. “Take Sarbanes-Oxley for example,” she says referring to the 2002 US corporate governance law intended to reduce fraud and ensure accuracy of financial filings. “You may have the base but you need the updates so you’re fully conversant on the changes. If you feel more comfortable with things going on in the business world, you’re going to feel more confident.”

Another option for women seeking to restart their careers is a part-time or distance-learning MBA.

Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business and Management in California recently introduced a 28-month Morning MBA programme; and Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University, New York State, is beefing up its flexible iMBA programme.

“The most difficult position any woman can put herself in is to stay at home for more than a couple of years without a plan,” says Paula O’Callaghan, director of the iMBA programme at Whitman. “Women need to fight isolation with everything they’ve got.”

Prof O’Callaghan says a distance-learning MBA course or an executive education programme is ideal for new mothers because it fills the gap on their résumé, helps them update their skills and gives them access to a career centre. She acknowledges that paying for such a course without corporate support is hard, but says “women ought to view it as an investment because an MBA is a credential” that will help them re­insert themselves more easily back into the workforce.

New York University’s Stern School, meanwhile, is taking a pre-emptive approach to the issue. Sheila Wellington, clinical professor of management at Stern, teaches a course called Women in Business Leadership, which helps women plan their careers for the long term – including developing strategies to take time out of work to raise a family.

“If women want to take time out, they have to think about how to make that
time out work,” says Prof Wellington, who has taught the perpetually oversubscribed course several times. “They have to plan and be strategic.”

Prof Wellington’s course offers units on how to identify companies with family-friendly leave policies and how to stay involved with professional groups during a leave of absence. For the final paper her students write a career plan. “I want them to think through what they want to get out of work, and the choices they want to make,” she says.

In Houston, Ms Clark is ready to take the plunge and return to the corporate world. She is looking for a job as a chief marketing officer. “It’s important for me that my daughters see that you can be successful in the working world, take time out to raise kids and then re-enter,” she says. “I want to be that role model for my girls.”

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