The Guardian - Returnships: Can the Hiring Programme Help Mothers Return to Work

When Sara Matthewman began looking for a job after a 13-year career break, she was suffering from a loss of self-confidence.

Before becoming a stay-at-home mum, she’d worked as a software developer at Warner Music, leading a team of up to eight people. But the mum-of-three, 43, from Weybridge, Surrey, felt her skills were outdated and had given up hope of getting back into the tech industry.

“You lose the confidence to do the job you used to do really easily. I thought there was no way of going back to what I was doing before.”

Matthewman decided to apply for graduate-level jobs and admin work, and that might have been the end of her tech career, had she not come across a “returnship” programme at Capgemini, a global business IT consultancy.

During the six-month paid internship, she received coaching and mentoring, updated her technology skills, and now has a permanent job with the company as a software engineer.

For Matthewman, the returnship removed many of the anxieties of starting a new job. “I felt very supported. It was a bit like being a graduate when it’s OK to say: ‘I don’t know, I’m a returner.’ You don’t feel so exposed. I can’t see how I could have got a job back in tech without the support of a company that was willing to help me get back up to speed.”

Returnships aim to help experienced professionals who have taken a long career break – whether it’s to look after children, or elderly or sick relatives – get a role at mid to senior level. And while they’re open to men too, the majority of applicants are women. According to the ONS, 88.7% of adults who aren’t in work because they are looking after family or the home are women.

“A chunk are women who are coming back in their late 30s or early 40s when the youngest child is at school,” says Julianne Miles, co-founder and managing director of Women Returners, a network and returner programme consultancy.

While the programmes have been around in the US for 10 years, the first schemes only launched in the UK in 2014. And it’s even earlier days for tech returnships. Women Returners lists a number of schemes with companies such as Capgemini, O2 and Amazon Web Services.

However, they appear to be catching on.

“I know quite a few tech companies in the US – such as IBM – that are now either implementing or developing returner programmes,” says Miles.

And crucially, in a sector where men are paid on average 17% more than women according to recent research, could they help to tackle the gender pay gap?

Supporting women back into senior roles is certainly a good place to start. Employers tend to have a high level of bias against people who don’t have recent experience, says Miles, especially in a fast-moving industry like tech. “What is incredibly surprising is highly-qualified tech women who have taken career breaks find it very hard to get a role again without a returner programme. You’d think they’d be crying out for qualified tech women, but they’re not if you don’t have recent experience.”

Too often returners apply for jobs they’re overqualified for, because they think it’s the only route back in. “We want to get people in at the right level, paid the right amount,” says Miles.

Last year there were 37 returnship programmes, according to data from Women Returners.

Not everyone is a fan of returnships, however. They are short-term placements and while there’s a strong likelihood of a permanent job at the end of the programme, it’s not guaranteed. Allison O’Kelly, CEO of Corps Team/Mom Corps, a career development firm in the US, takes issue with this and the fact many of the schemes are full-time. “It puts so much pressure on the person coming back and there’s no guarantee of a job.”

She has also criticised the term itself, suggesting it could undermine skilled professionals.

Is there a danger that these schemes perpetuate the stereotype that returners need additional support?

“There have been a lot of changes in the workforce, particularly in tech, so you do need time to get back up to speed,” says Miles. “There is often this loss of professional self-confidence, so it just takes you a while to get back into the swing of things.”

Clare McIntosh was working as head of multi-product propositions at British Gas, when she took voluntary redundancy. She was pregnant and intended to return to work when her child turned one.

Clare McIntosh, head of customer acquisition and retention, O2.
 Clare McIntosh, head of acquisition and retention, O2. Photograph: Clare McIntosh

“It turned out I was having twins,” she says. “When I’d given birth, one of my twins had Down’s syndrome. From birth, he had about six different medical appointments a week.”

When he turned two, he needed fewer appointments, so McIntosh started to look for work. Because she needed flexibility, she looked for part-time roles and thought she was limited to “minimum wage admin-type stuff”. However, in 2016, she got a place on O2’s first returner programme.

“On the programme itself I was a project manager within smart metering, which wasn’t an ideal fit, to be honest, but it did give me some experience and got me back into the workplace again.” She is now head of customer acquisition and retention for O2 Drive, and the flexible working culture means she can work full-time hours.

She says it’s best to see the programme as “a series of stepping stones over time, rather than a jump back”.

Of course, these schemes might not be necessary if employers didn’t take such a dim view of career breaks.

Miles argues that returnships are helping to change attitudes – organisations running programmes say hiring managers are becoming more open to people who have taken a career break.

And while returnships only cater for a small number of women at the moment, it could be that they make a real difference when it comes to changing attitudes and creating role models for returners.

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