This column is part of a series called "Voices of Women in Tech," created in collaboration with AnitaB.org, a global enterprise that supports women in technical fields, as well as the organizations that employ them and the academic institutions training the next generation.
I could always pinpoint the exact moment of disappointment in the middle of a job interview, when the interviewer would discover the gap in my resume. "Oh," they would say, "how are you going to get back up to speed?” The change in tone was palpable. I was no longer a candidate; I was a liability.
Four years prior, I had made the decision to leave my technical project manager position in order to better support my family. As my 3-year-old son grew, he required more care than he had when he was baby, when his needs were met by simple acts of feeding, bathing, and snuggling. I knew I didn't want to lose the best years with my child, who now needed me to be present in the moment, to be engaged, to have energy. But when I made the difficult decision to take a break, I never imagined that my career wouldn't be waiting for me when I was ready to return.
As I hit the pause button on my professional life, I planned to return to work when the time was right. But once I started my job hunt, I realized I had a harder road ahead of me. Interviewers would dwell on the skill sets they imagined I had lost, or the challenges they feared I would face when reintegrating into the workforce. It felt as though my past experience was deemed obsolete, even when I met all of the stated qualifications. My career pause had turned into my resume's black eye.
Many working parents face re-entry issues, but the challenge can be more pronounced in the tech industry. According to research by AnitaB.org and the Michelle R. Clayman Institute, "the mid-level is perhaps the most critical juncture for women on the technical career ladder, because it is here that a complex set of gender barriers converge." Indeed, 56 percent of women at high-tech companies leave their organizations at this point. According to Harvard Business Review, of the women who voluntarily leave work, only 40 percent return to full-time professional jobs.
With women leaving organizations at the mid-career level, it is no surprise that we have a shortage of women in senior positions. Only 5 percent of leadership positions in the technology industry are held by women. The pipeline for women in technology to senior-level roles has a leak. Many companies are taking an innovative approach to supporting women in the workplace, especially women in the technology industry, through a new kind of initiative: "returnships."
Returnships are a type of internship program that provide a way for organizations to recruit and on-board mid-career men and women who have taken a break in their careers and want to re-enter the workforce. Most returnships include technical training, with some providing soft skill trainings and mentorship to help increase the returnees' confidence. The nice part of returnships? You're not starting at the bottom of your career all over again; instead, your skills and past experience are recognized as a part of the program for you to build from.
More than 160 companies worldwide are investing in these types of programs as a way to meet the demands of this workforce. Nonprofit organizations like Path Forward partner with a variety of companies to offer mid-career paid programs to companies, which can provide resources and tools to help companies create their own returnship program.
As a member of the first cohort of the Intuit Again program — the returnship program at Intuit, which led me to my current position of senior technical program manager at the company — I wasn't sure what to expect. Having been a working professional before, I wasn't looking to start all over, but I also recognized I could take the chance to upgrade my technical skills. When I started the program, I was surprised to further hone my skills in agile methodologies and be paired with a mentor who offered me guidance and coaching on re-entering the workforce. Oftentimes, it can be an isolating experience to start a new role, so the support from my mentor and manager made the transition easier. And even if I didn’t take a job at Intuit, the new technical and soft skills I learned gave me the confidence that I was still marketable.
Returnship programs let highly skilled workers rejoin the workforce — a critical benefit to companies looking to close the leaky pipeline and hiring gaps. By returning to work at similar levels to the roles they occupied before putting their careers on hold, these women technologists are able to continue up the career ladder and thrive in a supportive and inclusive environment.
There are early indicators that these programs are successful. Goldman Sachs, for example, stated that about half of its returnship participants now work full-time. At Intuit Again, about three-quarters of participants join Intuit full-time.
As more organizations adapt to workforce changes, I'm encouraged to see more opportunities than ever before for those returning to work. For me, the sense of fulfillment and pride I receive from my career bleeds positively into all aspects of my life, including as a mother.