July 19, 2005--Women taking time off from corporate America have a hard time getting rehired, and they're turning to private businesses for more opportunities, says a recent study published by the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton Center for Leadership.

The study, "Back in the Game: Returning to Business after a Hiatus," surveyed over 100 women in senior management positions who have taken at least two years off and have either returned to the workforce or are currently trying to do so. Nearly 40% of respondents worked for companies with more than $1 billion in annual revenue prior to stepping out, and over 80% held MBAs from the nation's top business schools. The report focuses on the exodus of female talent from large corporations, finding more than half of women surveyed reentered the workforce in smaller companies with significantly lower annual revenues.

More women are seeking careers at small businesses because their former corporate employers pass them over for younger applicants when they reapply for a job, said Elissa Ellis, executive director of Forte Foundation. The foundation, which provides women with a national support network for career advancement, partnered with the Wharton Center on the study. The report found that employers tend to snap up fresh MBA graduates, leaving women who were once top executives frustrated and out of a job. As a result, small businesses can cash in on a displaced and valuable sector of the workforce, Ellis said. "There's a goldmine waiting for small businesses," she added.

Small companies cannot only provide these women with a job, she said, but they can also give them a greater work-life balance that most larger corporations do not offer. The challenge for smaller businesses is to maintain this flexible appeal, she said.

"As a company grows, it becomes tied up in hierarchy and distracted by the process rather than the contribution [of employees]," Ellis said. "Small companies need to be able to hold on to what attracted these women to them in the first place."

The study outlines several ways for employers to ease the transition for its employees who decide to take time off and return a few years later. One of the most important steps is for employers to educate hiring managers and recruiters about the benefits of hiring reentrants, said Monica McGrath, adjunct assistant professor at the Wharton School of Business and author of the study.

"It's easier to take that step in a smaller company," McGrath said. "It isn't as bureaucratic. You can identify these women and transition them back into the company."

The study suggests a partnership between companies, universities, and women that will help dismantle the barriers barring female employees from reentry.