Faced with a large number of women in STEM fields who exit the workforce mid-career, many employers in the tech sector have been looking for ways to bring these women back, both to address overall skills shortages and to improve diversity and inclusion. These women are typically mothers who leave their jobs either to devote their time exclusively to raising children or in response to workplace cultures that don’t allow them to balance family and career; though they may not intend to drop out of the job market permanently, in their fast-changing fields, a career gap of just few years can make it very hard to re-enter—and some of these women have gaps of a decade or more.
To help them get back on their professional feet, some companies have launched re-entry initiatives or “returnships”: internship or mentorship programs for mid-career employees that enable them to rapidly update their skills and re-establish their professional networks. Erin Carson at CNET profiles IBM’s re-entry program, a 12-week internship that places mid-career women with STEM backgrounds in one of the company’s various business lines:
Participants get a mentor and work on an actual project, whether it’s in data analytics or programming. The idea is that the program can create a smooth transition for its interns, get them up to speed and give managers a chance to see the interns’ work before hiring them.
“Most employers don’t look kindly on the fact that someone has not been doing work and someone has taken a career break for 15 to 20 years,” said Jennifer Howland, who leads IBM’s program. … IBM’s Tech Re-Entry Program is on its third cohort of interns having graduated more than 30 so far. Howland said the company wants to branch out to other countries and plans on doing the program about once a year.
Like other tech companies, IBM has worked with iRelaunch, one of several organizations that have emerged to help organizations set up returnship programs. While these initiatives are a good start for making the tech sector and other fields more inclusive of women (and older workers), it is important to keep in mind that bringing women back is just a first step: At many companies, bigger cultural changes may be necessary to create an environment in which older women feel welcome and valued and are able to succeed.