For Helping Women Get Back to Work, ‘Returnships’ Are a Good First Step (But Just a First Step)

For Helping Women Get Back to Work, ‘Returnships’ Are a Good First Step (But Just a First Step)

Faced with a shortage of skilled tech talent, many organizations are looking to bring back mid-career professionals (the vast majority of them women) who left the workforce for lengthy periods of time to care for children or elderly relatives and are looking to return. Several organizations, including iRelaunch and the nonprofit Path Forward, a project by the data provider Return Path, have been set up specifically to facilitate these re-entries, using internships, mentorships, and other methods to help returnees update their skills and re-acclimate to office life. Last week, Path Forward announced the launch of its return-to-work program in California, in which six Silicon Valley employers are participating:

Beginning in October, GoDaddy, Zendesk, Demandbase, Coursera, CloudFlare and Instacart will offer multiple jobs, in the form of 18-week paid internships, to give people who wish to return to the workplace an on-ramp back into their careers. The program is open to mid-career professionals with a minimum of five years of work experience who have taken at least two years out of the workforce to take care of their kids, their parents or other loved ones. Jobs span a wide variety of functions, including marketing, engineering and sales. Applications are now being accepted directly by each company and a complete list of opportunities can be found at pathforward.org.

Path Forward’s director tells the Washington Post’s Jena McGregor that she plans to expand the program to other parts of the country in the coming months:

While the program is open to men who have spent at least two years out of the workplace as a caregiver, it is expected to be filled largely by women. It is aimed at helping interns confront the stigma they face about time away. Also tech companies get a chance to improve their reputation as places that too many women leave. “If you’re wanting more women at the senior level, this is a way to jump-start that,” said Tami Forman, the executive director of Path Forward. Forman said there’s been enough interest from other companies that she plans to start two to three more groups of these untraditional interns (who, yes, are paid) in several cities early next year, each with six to 10 tech companies.

While the “returnship” model has generated a lot of enthusiasm, McGregor points out that they don’t necessarily work for every industry, and shouldn’t be taken as a cure-all for the challenge of bringing mid-career women back to work:

Still, while success rates for participants tend to be high, the effect such programs will have on moving the needle — either for the number of mid-career women in tech or the number of parents wanting to get back to work after child rearing — could be limited. For one, the programs tend to be relatively small. Several of the pilot programs included internships for just a handful of people — GoDaddy is hiring three interns, and there were nine in the first group at PayPal — and iRelaunch’s [CEO Carol Fishman] Cohen says existing programs tend to number 20 or 30 interns a year. Meanwhile, the programs are largely limited to fields where job demand is already strong, such as tech and finance, and do little to help those trying to get back to work in struggling industries or those with an abundant supply of workers looking for jobs. Forman said she’s heard of an effort to do a “returnship”-style program in the advertising field, but it didn’t take off. “The problem with that industry and industries like it is there’s 10 people lined up for every job,” she said.

I am also curious about how this program is working in tandem with these companies’ other diversity efforts. Are they working to make sure that some of these returnship participants are members of underrepresented minorities? This program could also be a huge opportunity for single mothers, who along with women of color tend to bear the brunt of the “motherhood penalty,” so I wonder if they are making an effort to reach out to them as well.

I think understanding the intentions behind these returnship programs are important for measuring their success. If the goal is to quickly increase rates of female representation, they may not be successful, but if the goal is to demonstrate the value of bringing mature, mid-career women back into the tech field, that seems more promising. However, that alone is not enough. To improve diversity in tech organizations over the longer term, efforts to recruit from nontraditional talent pools must be coupled with internal efforts to make these organizations more inclusive. For example, what kind of parental leave policies or flexible work hours will be available for these returnship employees? Will they have the flexibility they need to balance work and parenting or caregiving obligations? Enticing them to come back to work is one thing; the challenge that remains is making it possible for them to stay.