THE BLOG
02/22/2013 04:14 pm ET Updated Apr 24, 2013

We Have a Responsibility to Change the Conversation About Women At Work

Sometimes I think we read about and discuss workforce trends and challenges through a myopic lens. For example, a company is launching a particular initiative which may serve as an interesting anecdote, but doesn't address the issue at large or the way the issue is perceived by the general population. By expanding the scope of a challenge, we can often identify better solutions.

This week, Leslie Kwoh of the Wall Street Journal wrote this piece about McKinsey and the other big consulting firms and their endeavors to recruit "mothers who left the fold." It is interesting if perhaps lacking in some detail, but it just strikes me as such a small part of the issue of professionals returning to work and having conditions available so they don't leave in the first place. Don't get me wrong, I follow Leslie's great writing regularly on workplace issues and working mothers in particular. I just don't think she was given much to work with here.

Points like "staying in touch with female alumni" and focusing "heavily on recruiting and retaining women" are nice, but really worthy of mention? How about instead sharing information on their re-entry programs or outreach so that we may all push forward best practices for the common good. Or what of the bit about having "more than 100 women" return to the firm over the last 13 years, most (not all) of them mothers? Again, good to note, but where does this fall in line with the company's employment of and the retention or attrition of women who become mothers during their tenure? Surely they have ascertained something interesting to share from their program ... or is it really smoke and mirrors? Have they pushed the needle forward?

The fact that Big Consulting wants to open the doors for professional mothers to return is not surprising. It is the right path as part of a larger talent strategy. These women have proven themselves and, assuming they haven't been out of the workplace for many years, can likely ramp up fairly quickly. But companies, just like working mothers, need to be honest about what they are coming back to. Like it or not, things have changed and priorities have shifted.

I'm well aware that high-level consulting and executive leadership don't mesh easily with professional women who are also moms. Equipped with a Harvard MBA, I started with one of the Big Four accounting firms, then transitioned to management at a global retailer. Soon after, I had children. I found myself unsatisfied with the results of trying to do both my job and my parenting to perfection. And, more importantly the sheer fact that working flexibly made people doubt my ambition and commitment even though I was probably working harder than many of my colleagues. So I started consulting and eventually started a company that specifically addresses the need and desire for professional mothers to get back to work, and helping companies tap into this talent pool in a way that works for both parties.

But I continue to voice that a return to the workforce and how we structure the workplace is not just about working mothers. Professional men who have been out of the workforce due to recession layoffs, stay-at-home dads making their own professional come-back, veterans back from deployment, returning retirees worth their weight in industry intelligence gold, are also looking for employment after time out of the workforce. Many of the same re-entry issues apply to them as well as working mothers. Phase back programs, flexibility options, skills training, and mentor relationships are applicable to anyone returning to work. By broadening the conversation, we can work through best practices to a larger degree and see more significant end results.

We might also get away from the thinking that this is a "mommy issue" and actually make changes that will positively impact professionals and their employers. I don't believe Anne-Marie Slaughter's mantra of "you can't have it all," or Rosabeth Moss Kantor's running a family doesn't help you in business, or the Carol Fishman Cohen idea of internships for proven professionals. We need to realize that it can work, and it does work when companies embrace a few small changes. As Cali Yost would say, companies can "Tweak it" too. We need to stop being so dramatic and just start making changes that are possible for today and for our future.

As organizations, we benefit by spending time and resources on initiatives that move our businesses forward. By adjusting our position on outdated work models, we alleviate the very real and hidden costs of employee turnover, and succeed in not only attracting but retaining top talent through their various life stages. Employees aren't sticking around for the Rolex or gold-plated Timex at 65 these days, but they will be loyal to the company that understands and attends to their personal as well as professional aspirations.

I appreciate Leslie Kwoh's reporting on the issue and have high regard for her insight; from here I think we have a very tangible opportunity to build upon her findings and work towards solutions.

Allison O'Kelly is founder/CEO of Mom Corps, a national professional staffing firm with a focus on flexible work. Launched in 2005, Mom Corps has helped champion the view that flexibility is a benefit to not only professionals but to the companies that employ them. Follow us at @MomCorps and @AllisonOKelly.