May 22, 2024

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Employers woo women back to work from career breaks

4 min read

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Three years after Covid lockdowns pushed many women out of the workforce, they are starting to return. That means employers have a rare opportunity to plug labour shortages and skills gaps — and it could also help diversify their pipelines for senior management ranks.

But tapping this new labour source won’t always be straightforward.

Many were forced out of the workforce by caregiving demands that may still weigh on their ability to work in the office full-time. Some women have been gone long enough that their skills need refreshing. And managers must figure out the best way to supervise and evaluate workers who may be new to the job while not at all new to work.

Companies with experience of hiring returners have found that success requires a commitment beyond a willingness to overlook gaps in an applicant’s résumé.

“It’s a relatively untapped talent pool for mid- and senior-level people . . . but it is not enough to say ‘we will make it a level playing field’,” says Julianne Miles, co-founder of Women Returners, which helps companies create supportive routes for workers who have taken a significant career break, for a range of reasons. Those reasons might be, for example: looking after children, living overseas, caring for ill relatives, or starting a business.

The longest break for a programme participant, so far, is 30 years — for a chartered accountant who raised a family and relaunched her career at the Bank of England.

Employers need to provide returning workers with flexibility to give them time to get used to balancing paid employment with continuing demands at home. Given how much work has changed in the past couple of years, returners may also be slower to adapt to office expectations than employees coming straight from another job.

“Especially in a hybrid environment, it is important to have things written down,” advises Tara Van Bommel, a senior director at Catalyst, which helps companies make their workplaces more welcoming to women.

One popular route for wooing back workers is through “returnships” — paid training programmes that seek to refresh or upgrade participants’ skills and set them up to apply for open jobs within the company.

Financial services firms, which have historically suffered from an exodus of female employees before they reach the ranks of middle management, were among the pioneers in this area.

Investment bank Morgan Stanley now offers 12- to 16-week paid re-entry programmes in a dozen global locations to outside professionals who have taken at least one year off. Rival Goldman Sachs rebooted its longstanding programme in 2021 specifically to target workers returning from Covid-related leaves.

Such programmes can help bring workers up to speed on the latest office tech, whether it is Zoom or experimental uses of artificial intelligence, and get them used to working in an office again — or in the kinds of hybrid arrangement that have grown up since the pandemic.

Optimists believe that drawing people back to work can help overcome what consultancy McKinsey says is the biggest barrier to getting more women into top jobs. Currently, in the US and Canada, for every 100 men recommended for their first promotion to management, there are 87 women overall, and only 54 black women — and the women never catch up. A large part of what McKinsey calls the “broken rung” on the career ladder stems from women taking themselves out of the running by taking time off.

But hiring returning workers is not the same as keeping them. Miles cautions that returnships can turn into dead ends if the employee is given pointless tasks, or the sponsor has no appropriate open job. That risks discouraging workers who already have a relatively loose connection to the labour force. It works better, she says, to hire a returner into an ordinary job and give them extra time to adjust.

At law firm Proskauer, employees who have taken substantial parental leave receive 100 per cent of pay for a 75 per cent working schedule in their first six months back, under its CaRe programme. This gives them time to work out childcare arrangements and commuting schedules. HR staff work with the firm’s partners to arrange cover when the returners are off.

“It really was pivotal for me,” says Kerry Shriver, who has been through the programme twice. “I’m not sure I would have gone for partner without the breathing room CaRe gave me.”

Companies that invest in welcoming returners after a significant career break make other, less obvious gains, too. “The core benefit of diversity is cognitive diversity — and people who have taken career breaks have had different experiences,” notes Miles.

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