'Returnships': A great idea for fixing the 'leaky pipeline' of talented women

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Working with women who are looking to return to the workforce after an extended absence to raise children, I commonly hear how they feel “daunted”, have “lost their confidence” and often “don’t know where to start”. After a two year break to raise her twins, one HR Manager told me, “I’m just not sure if my skills are up to scratch and applicable to today’s competitive job market.”

In her recent article advocating quotas to achieve 40% female board representation, Marino Go rightly pointed out that initiatives would need to be put in place to enable and support potential fe-male leaders to return to their place in the leadership pipeline. While flexibility is fundamental to this discussion, so too is opportunity itself.

It is well documented that women at the middle or senior management level often step away from the workforce for a time for childcare reasons. Although many of them intend to return to work, af-ter some years they find it difficult to secure equally senior positions and commonly suffer dimin-ished confidence as as result.

In a climate of high unemployment, employers have no appetite for risk. A senior recruiter shared with me that mothers who have been out of the workforce for an extended period are commonly perceived as ‘risky’, with outdated skills and industry knowledge. “They really need to tap into their networks,” she said. ” That’s probably the only way they are going to get back in.”

Even after years in recruitment myself, I still find this reality a surprising one. Not only do these women bring maturity, experience and stability back into the workforce, but to varying degrees ASX 200 companies are actively pursuing gender diversity initiatives to increase the representation of women in senior leadership roles. The very women these companies need, are the same wom-en who can’t get back in.

Carol Fishman Cohen, author of the widely disseminated Harvard Business Review article, The 40-Year Old Intern, has studied the emergence of internship-like programs across employment sectors in the US. They originated with the Goldman Sachs “Returnship” program, which evolved out of research that employers were not tapping into the experienced talent pool of women who had left the workforce for a few years, and were looking to get back in.

These programs are typically paid short-term employment contracts based on the skills, interests and prior experience of the returner. Best practice is for the employer to mirror their internship pro-gram with training and mentoring provided during the program. Cohen has observed that such short-term, non-binding return-to-work programs can be a valuable way to reduce the perceived risk of hiring women who have had an extended absence from the workforce.

In Australia, a landmark study that uncovered rampant discrimination against women and mothers returning to work prompted Commonwealth Bank CEO Ian Narev to comment on the leadership role of the Bank in supporting women in the workplace. “We know we must do better,” he said.

I’d like to propose that ‘better’ might look like a revised version of the “Returnship” concept, where ASX 200 companies provide a much needed ramp for their own female managers to re-enter the workforce after an extended absence. Instead of attracting 1000 applications from the market for 10 positions as the Sara Lee program did, what if women were guaranteed this opportunity with their employer from two years after exiting and before ten years?

The potential benefits for women include the opportunity to:
  1. Rebuild professional confidence
  2. Update and acquire relevant skills
  3. Receive training, mentoring and access to corporate networks
  4. Assess the reality of a return to the workforce and its impact on family life
  5. Potentially secure employment
Meanwhile the potential benefits for business include:
  1. Focused attention of experienced talent on business-critical issues
  2. Reassurance of capability to hit the ground running
  3. Loyalty as a result of the opportunity
  4. Access to a huge and largely untapped talent pool
  5. Replenishment of the female leadership pipeline

Returnship initiatives offer a potential win-win solution for business and women. At the highest level, they can contribute towards addressing the challenge of gender diversity in corporate Australia, something deemed by many as critical for sustainable success in a global environment.

Do you have a great idea to help support and promote women at work, and business at the same time?

By: Eliza Kennedy

First published: 20th August 2014

Source: Women’s Agenda

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