Women and diversity

How return-to-work programs boost retention for women in tech

Many women find returning to work after having children means judgment and discrimination. Now some tech firms are offering “returnships” after a career break.

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Mothers returning to work after a career break to raise children face many challenges, from closed doors to employers penalizing resumé gaps to being expected to take a backward step for a more family-friendly role.

Returners aren’t just mothers back from parental leave. They include fathers, carers, those recovering from health conditions and those who’ve taken time out to study or pursue other passions. But a resumé gap seems to hit women hardest.

Research by the Association of British Insurers in 2018 found having children leads to women earning 20 percent less than men long-term. UK charity Pregnant then Screwed’s data shows around 62 percent of women returners work fewer hours, change jobs or stop working because of high childcare costs.

Support in returning to work

How can companies support women to thrive in the workforce while closing the gender pay gap? Harvard Business Review names “returnships,” or return-to-work programs, as one of the top five ways.

PWC research shows better supporting returners could raise UK women’s earnings 1.1 billion British pounds (around 1.5 billion US dollars) while boosting the UK economy 1.7 billion British pounds ($2.3 billion US dollars.)

Meta, formerly Facebook, launched its returnships program. People who’ve been away from work for two years or more and want to re-enter full time are eligible for the 16-week, immersive, paid program. If you show ability to succeed after training and mentorship, you’re considered for a full-time position.

Returning without starting from scratch

With a nearly four-year resumé gap after having two children, IT professional Zandra Otubamowo anticipated picking up her career where she’d left it. But after a string of rejections, she had to consider starting from scratch. She says, “I had many mixed feelings, but the one that stands out was the frustration of trying to get something you know you want, but it’s not coming, and you don’t know what else to do.”

Otubamowo continues, “In that gap, it’s not like I was sitting at home, just taking care of my family. I was still learning about the technical world, doing training and connecting with people. So what didn’t I have? I felt like the gap was the reason.”

A friend told Otubamowo about Meta’s Return to Work program. She applied immediately and started her role as Technical Program Manager in September 2020. Meta hopes its Return-to-Work initiative will help double female employees globally by 2026 – women are currently around 37 percent of their workforce.

“The support in the program was like being put into a bubble to protect us, which you don’t get when you just come in normally,” Otubamowo says. “From my manager to my mentor and my buddy, there were so many people put in place for me to make sure I succeed. You’re coming into a space where things are moving so quickly, but in the program, people help you move at your pace. I don’t think I could have survived otherwise.”

“We need more women to feel comfortable coming back into the workforce and not feel like they have to take a paycut or fall behind – that you are going to be given what you deserve,” says Otubamowo.

Bridging the gender gap

Financial services group Nomura launched its Returners Program in 2019 as part of a plan to increase numbers of women in the business. The program gives 12 weeks’ induction, training and coaching to anyone who’s had a career break of 18 months or more, after which candidates can apply for positions at the company. Most succeed.

Nomura is aiming for 33 percent female employees and has so far reached 31 percent. They want 19 percent working at senior level and have reached 14 percent.

After a seven-year career break to care for two young daughters, Rachael Grieve recalls jumping back into the job market in 2019 and finding nothing but despair. The yawning gap in her resumé left her with few opportunities that suited her experience and ideal schedule.

After a failed interview for an office manager position, “I went home and burst into tears, thinking, “That’s it – I’m done.” It felt like all these doors were closed. I still remember that desperation and fear, especially after interviews destroy your confidence. You find yourself stuck as to where to go.”

Soon after, a chance conversation with a friend who still worked at her previous employer, Nomura, led to Grieve returning and setting up the company’s Returners Program.

Shereen Peeroo Finney, a cybersecurity architect, joined Nomura in 2019 through the program after taking two years away to reassess her career direction and retrain.

She thinks it’s the support of a structured program with a cohort to bond with that makes the difference between a returner thriving and struggling.

“We had resumé advice, practice interviews, external mentoring and a 90-day plan. The program helps you regain confidence a lot faster,” Peeroo Finney says.

Securing the right support and partners for success

Tackling gender inequality isn’t easy, admits Grieve, now Nomura’s global head of learning and development for technology. She feels strongly about leading this program, so it becomes a standard part of Nomura’s diversity, equality and inclusion strategy.

“Our Chief Information Officer from day one was 100 percent supportive,” Grieve says. “It made a massive difference to be given the platform and sponsorship. I also made sure all senior managers understood the caliber of candidates we were getting through it.”

Specialist firm Inclusivity Partners helps run Nomura’s returnship program and similar programs for Shell and Virgin Money.

Inclusivity Partners founder Stephanie Dillon says, “If you want to make the difference for women, they need a job. They need pension contributions. They need financial independence. With return programs, you’re providing a job opportunity. Now [when the candidate is] back in the market, other companies think, “that’s a good candidate,” rather than fixating on the career break.”

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About authors

MaryLou Costa writes on business topics like work culture, sustainability and innovation. She has written for The Guardian and has appeared on BBC and Sky News.