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Cherie Blair and the On-Ramping Challenge

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This month Cherie Blair is scrambling to re-calibrate her work life. As her husband Tony Blair left Downing Street last week, Blair was looking to ramp up her career -- expanding her staff, moving into newly renovated office space in London's Cadogan Square.

It's not that Blair ever opted out -- this highly credentialed woman is a distinguished barrister -- but it's fair to say that in recent years her legal career has been severely curtailed by her husband's position. Ever since March 1997 when Blair became Prime Minister, Cherie Blair has gamely channeled a chunk of her best energy into the role of political spouse: presiding over state dinners, hosting charity events, campaigning for her husband's re-election, and most painfully, shielding herself and her children from an increasingly hostile and intrusive press.

Blair is now raring to go. She's talking about reaching for a pinnacle in the legal profession. She's talking about making real money on the international lecture circuit. And she's talking about becoming a much more outspoken human rights advocate. In a recent interview she also admitted to doubts, questioning whether it was realistic to reach for the top, to go for broke. "I'm 52 and have been in a slow lane for more than a decade."

Blair has reason to be concerned. A new book, published last month by the Harvard Business School Press, demonstrates that women who take time out pay a hefty price.

Across sector more than a third of highly qualified career women take an off-ramp (voluntarily leave their careers for a period of time), and another third take a slow lane or scenic route (a flextime option, a reduced hour job). However, like Cherie Blair, these women do not intend to drop out. Most of them want to get back on track. Two to three years down the road the vast majority (93 percent) are looking for jobs.

But here's the rub. Getting back in is far from easy. On-ramps are hard to find and incredibly expensive. Only 74 percent of women seeking to get back to work find jobs, and many of these jobs involve a pay cut. Women take an 18 percent hit when they've spent two years outside the workforce and this figure quickly rises. Those who've been out three years or more face a 38 percent pay cut.

Money is not the only thing that women lose. The data shows that time out results in a down-sizing of aspiration as well as income. In mid-life only 37 percent of women see themselves as very ambitious compared to 53 percent of their younger peers. In the wake of an off-ramp many women lose heart and redefine what they expect of themselves. They downsize their dreams. Like Cherie Blair, they have qualms about reaching for the stars. It seems unrealistic.

So what to do?

For reasons that range from a tightening job market, to baby busts and retiring baby boomers, employers are newly willing to help women get back on track. Nowadays companies can ill afford to lose experienced, well-qualified women they are not easily or cheaply replaced. A recent study shows that it costs companies 93-200 percent of a departing employee's annual salary to replace each woman they lose.

Recently, companies such as American Express, Booz Allen Hamilton, Ernst & Young, Johnson & Johnson, General Electric, Lehman Brothers and Time Warner have committed to developing a rich array of programs that allow women to both ramp down and ramp up. For example, 18 months ago Lehman Brothers (the Wall Street investment house) created a program called Encore to welcome off-ramped women who want to get back into the financial sector. Encore offers re-training, confidence building and a range of job opportunities. The program has been a huge success for the employer (who has been able to tap into a rich pool of talent) and for individual women who are immensely grateful for a chance to get back on the career highway.

While Cherie Blair is likely to have more options than most on-ramping women, the challenges she's experiencing this month are front and center for many working moms. Time out can undermine standard as well as high profile careers and support from progressive employers can make all the difference.