I worked full-time in media companies for 17 years before going to work for myself in 2001, when my two children were 3-1/2 years and 16 months old. I had a third child but never stopped working, because I have the ultimate flexible job.

I’ve always felt lucky that I chose writing for a living, because it’s something that can be done alone, at any hour of the day or night. Because my occupation accommodated the other demands of my life, I never had to quit.

No Second Chances?

A new book suggests that if most mothers had the same accommodations, they’d still be working. On the bright side, more companies are recognizing that creating flexible options benefits their bottom line.

“There are structural characteristics of the male competitive model that fit very badly into the reality of women’s lives,” says Sylvia Anne Hewlett, an economist, founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy, and author of the new book “Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success.”

“The requirement that you have a continuous, cumulative lockstep employment record seems to be a necessary condition for success for all kinds of professional niches,” Hewlett says. “Most career models demand that the steepest gradient in the career path needs to be in one’s 30s — that’s when you catch a wave or you don’t, and there are no second chances.”

In 2004, Hewlett established the Hidden Brain Drain Task Force with Carolyn Buck Luce of Ernst & Young and Cornel West of Princeton University. They were eventually joined by 34 leading companies, including Microsoft, American Express, and Unilever, who sponsored focus groups and a national study of over 3,000 highly qualified workers — 2,500 women and 653 men.

The Old Heave-Ho

Contrary to media stories suggesting that women were “opting out” of the workforce voluntarily to care for children, Hewlett found most are “pushed out”: 76 percent of those who left their jobs would’ve taken a flexible, reduced-hour job had it been available.

The task force study also found:

• Among women who off-ramp, 93 percent of those surveyed want to rejoin the ranks of the employed, but only 74 percent manage to do so.

• Of those who do on-ramp, only 40 percent return to full-time, mainstream jobs; 24 percent work part-time and 9 percent are self-employed.

• Women who spend just 2.2 years out of the workforce lose 18 percent of their earning power; for women out 3 or more years, it’s 37 percent.

The Freedom to Work Smarter

Fortunately, some large companies have recognized the economic toll of this loss of talent, and are responding. Ernst & Young, for example, has created flexible work arrangements that allow workers to reduce their load to 60 percent of that of a full-time job. Increasing rates of retention among female professionals yielded savings of $10 million a year.

Some 75 percent of workers at BT (formerly British Telecom) work flexible hours under the company’s Freedom to Work initiative. It was fueled by BT’s experience dealing with the Y2K problem in 1999. Its employees, racing against the Jan. 1, 2000, deadline and collaborating with colleagues in India, were hampered by traditional work schedules.

BT allowed the team members to work whenever they wanted as long as they coordinated schedules with each other. They took fewer sick days, were more productive, and accomplished more over a shorter time period than other BT teams.

Success Stories

Many other companies are tapping recruiting agencies that specialize in work-family balance. Atlanta-based Mom Corps, started by Harvard Business School grad and CPA Allison O’Kelly, has more than 6,000 resumes of accountants, attorneys, marketing specialists, and the like in its database, and six offices nationwide.

“Some clients want a professional in the office 30 hours a week,” says O’Kelly, who has two children, ages 4 and 2. “We might find the perfect candidate, but she can only be in the office 24 hours and is happy to do the other 6 hours from home. A lot of staffing agencies make it difficult for people with flexibility requirements. They don’t ask those questions.”

In the human resources field, there’s HR OptIn, founded by Atlanta-based consultant and mom Monique Dearth. She left a high-level job at GE in 1999 to spend more time with her one-year-old and started consulting for GE and other clients such as DuPont, Frito-Lay, and Home Depot. That business eventually grew to 12 women who work flexible schedules.

When clients sought specialists to service assignments outside the scope of her consulting business, Dearth started her recruiting firm. “We’re placing fantastic people who are no longer in the corporate workforce but have great skills, and are at a point where their kids are a little older and they’re ready to get back in,” says Dearth, who has an eight-year-old and a six-year-old.

Most of her workers are women of 35 to 50 years old with a few children, although some are men who have been downsized. They work on an hourly or project basis. A recent HR assignment paid $65 an hour.

Hit the Ground Running

The key for employers is that the temporary professionals hit the ground running, says Dearth. “There’s no handholding or micromanaging required, and oftentimes the professional brings skill sets or a thought process the client never considered.”

Austin-based Lesley Spencer Pyle started Home-Based Working Moms, an online community of parents who run or aspire to run businesses from home, in 1995. Pyle launched a second site this year — HireMyMom.com — to match professionals looking for temporary or part-time projects with clients, rather than launching their own businesses.

“It’s so much more accepted than even just a few years ago, when people were hesitant to hire someone working from home because they couldn’t keep an eye on them,” says Pyle. “Productivity goes up when someone works from home, because they’re so appreciative of that benefit of flexibility, and try harder to prove themselves.”

Working Hard at Home

Meanwhile, technology has been a boon for women who aren’t in a position to return to their former careers but still want an income. Wisconsin-based Kim Conner, a mother of three children under age five and former high school chemistry teacher, earns up to $15,000 a year working for LiveOps, a customer call-center service. She works about 20 hours a week, mostly at night and on weekends, when her spouse is home.

“After my first child I went to part-time, but I realized when I was pregnant with my second child it wasn’t going to work — my whole income would go to day care,” she says. Conner logs into the LiveOps web site on Thursday, and clicks on whatever hours she wants to work, handling calls for fitness products, charitable groups, food service companies, and the like. If one of her children is sick, she can cancel 30 minutes before her shift.

“I average $12 to $15 an hour and never leave my house,” she says, adding that the money goes into her children’s college savings. “I don’t have to worry about a work wardrobe, commuting, or gasoline. I actually love what I’m doing.”