new york -- Gina Thoma is taking a year off from work to raise a family, but she's still playing the corporate game.
As part of a new program at PricewaterhouseCoopers, the 42-year-old mother of three mingles at firm events, checks in with a career coach and attends seminars to keep her professional skills fresh.
"They're keeping the door open for me, saying they would still like to have me," said Thoma, who quit her job at the public accounting firm in January.
Once regarded as a career setback, taking extended time off to care for children is no longer such a liability as businesses fight to hold on to valuable female executives. Companies are rolling out lavish welcome mats for returning women, offering options to ease the transition back to the working world.
Women might act as "substitutes" or take advantage of free professional courses, networking events and even lactation consultants. Flexible work schedules are more popular too, with many women opting to "phase back" to work after standard or extended maternity leave.
The programs come amid shifting attitudes about balancing work and family. Last month, in a study by the Pew Research Center, 60% of working mothers said part-time work was their ideal rather than full-time, compared with 48% a decade ago.
The growing preference for part-time work clashes with reality, however: Three-quarters of working mothers have full-time jobs.
The discrepancy may signal employee dissatisfaction and is a wake-up call for companies to start providing flexible work-life arrangements to avoid turnover, said Suzanne Riss, editor in chief of Working Mother magazine.
In hopes of preventing an exodus of talent, more companies are offering ways for new mothers to balance family and work.
Of Working Mother's annual list of 100 best companies to work for last year, for example, 81 offered a variation of phase-back plans for new mothers. The programs let women ease into the work routine at their own pace after maternity leave, perhaps starting by working a few hours a day before ramping back up to full time.
Other programs go much further, providing personal time off far beyond the 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave guaranteed to most women by federal law.
However, the transition programs are typically reserved for women in managerial or executive positions.
The Personal Pursuits program at accounting firm Deloitte & Touche lets former employees stay connected through freelance assignments and career coaching.
Participants probably won't get their specific jobs back -- companies need to find permanent replacements -- but the idea is that participants will return at a comparable level.
Similarly, the Full Circle program at PricewaterhouseCoopers lets women take up to five years off (unpaid) while staying connected to the firm through mentoring, training classes and invitations to networking events.
"The message is that leaving is not only OK, but that [the firm] will do everything possible to help them return," said Jennifer Allyn, managing director of gender retention and advancement at PricewaterhouseCoopers.
At IBM, many women work with managers to map out a personalized strategy for returning before going on extended leave. At Deloitte & Touche, employees can increase or decrease workloads depending on personal needs.
Such programs, which are typically intended for new mothers, mean women no longer have to pick between career and family, said Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute.
The shift reflects a broader transformation of the typical career trajectory. With more people adjusting workloads and taking "timeouts" for personal reasons or to try a new field, the linear career path is no longer the only way up the corporate ladder, Galinsky said.
That doesn't mean returning to work after a long absence is easy, especially in industries that may have undergone radical changes in a short time. Former peers and subordinates may have moved on, clients may have changed and new managers may be in place.
But for Thoma and others, the hope is to minimize such pitfalls.
Since leaving her job in January, Thoma has sat on a panel for a company women's networking group, lunched with her career coach and attended several work-sponsored social events. The firm flew her to Canada this month for a training conference.
Although Thoma doesn't expect to get the same job back when she returns, the hope is that she'll still be able to continue her rise up the corporate ladder. Thoma, a Marin County resident, still plans to become a partner after she returns.
"My plan is to be out for one or two years," she said. "At the same time, I don't want to be bumped down."