Most feminist organization assume that the only way the workplace will provide mothers (and fathers) with the kind of more flexible work arrangements that they crave is by imposing government mandates. Yet many companies are finding that it is good business to find arrangements that appeal to parents and to find ways to draw women who have taken time off to focus on children back into the workforce. The latest example is in today’s Wall Street Journal:

Led by CEO Brenda Barnes, the nation’s best-known on-ramper, Sara Lee will hire about 10 to 12 skilled, experienced men and women for four- to six-month “returnships.” Like college internships, the returnships will offer experience in marketing, brand management, sales or professional staff roles, Ms. Barnes says. Recruiting for the first group is expected to start this week, and a second “class” of 10 to 12 returnees is planned for 2009.

The returnships are designed to lead to permanent jobs; while Ms. Barnes acknowledges that hiring is soft – Sara Lee underwent layoffs earlier this year – she says she’s optimistic that at least some matches with specific openings can eventually be made.

Ms. Barnes drew heavy fire in 1997 for quitting as president and chief executive of PepsiCo’s North American operations to spend more time with her three children. Although her time-out was far from typical – she served on corporate boards and in a four-month stint as interim president of Starwood Hotels & Resorts – she was criticized for damaging other mothers’ prospects of breaking the glass ceiling.

By 2004, however, Ms. Barnes was serving as another kind of symbol – of the need for more flexible career paths. She returned to the executive suite that year as president and chief operating officer of Sara Lee and now holds the titles of chairman and chief executive. By last August, she was winning praise on Wall Street for turning around the Downers Grove, Ill.-based food giant. Her children, ages 21, 20 and 18, are in college.

Ms. Barnes takes personal satisfaction, she says, in starting an on-ramping program. “There’s this huge pool of talent out there, of women who have decided to take time off for family reasons and have a hard time coming back … They didn’t lose their brains when they left the workforce, yet … their confidence levels aren’t as high as they should be,” she says. With the returnships, she says, she hopes to send a message: “If you want to go back to work, you can do it.”