Economists studying women and work have consistently cited career interruptions as a one of the main reason that a variety of workplace inequalities persist—from long-term pay penalties for dropping out, to missing promotions that would (theoretically) put women in leadership positions. In fact, the gender pay gap is the most dire for married women. And while the overall pay gap has been slowly closing for decades, the motherhood penalty—whereby women with children experience wage penalties that women without children and men don’t—has not diminished over time.
The term “off-ramping” is used to describe women who are voluntarily leaving their job for an extended amount of time. In a 2015 survey from Pew Research, nearly 40 percent of women with children reported taking a significant amount of time off work, and 27 percent reported quitting their jobs for responsibilities at home. And for these women, the “on ramps” can be hard to locate when they’re ready to rejoin the workforce.
“I guess I had always just expected in my head that I would finish up to a certain point with my children, and then go back to work. When that time came, it was a lot more difficult than I thought it would be,” said Lisa Stephens, who left the workforce in 1992. Stephens had worked at IBM in the software department, and decided to stay home to raise her two sons. Twenty years later, Stephens wanted to go back to work and started strategizing how she could make that happen. She took courses online on software development, and started to pursue an advanced degree, but wasn’t seeing much interest from employers. Her break came in the form of an internship designed specifically for women who had taken career breaks with the data company Return Path. Stephens was part of the inaugural class or a 20-week paid “return internship” at the company, and was hired on full-time as a software engineer at the conclusion of the internship.
The term returnship was coined (and trademarked) by Goldman Sachs in 2008, when the investment bank started a 10-week program for women and men with career gaps who were looking to get back to full-time work. Since then, the returnship has gained momentum in the banking sector. Credit Suisse, Morgan Stanley, and JPMorgan all have work re-entry programs, and last year General Motors added one as well. A group of companies in the tech sector have also joined the endeavor, led by Path Forward, a non-profit that Return Path created last year. While return internship options are largely available for only white-collar jobs at the moment, it’s this population of professional women who tend to marry husbands with enough income to afford becoming a single-earner household while women in lower-paying jobs cannot afford to drop out.
There’s evidence that the success rate post-internship has been high: At the conclusion of the program, GM extended full-time offers to nine participants. The program at Goldman is similarly popular: The program sees hundreds of applications every year for the 20 to 30 spots available, and the company reports that about half of the returnship program participants now work at the company full-time. While promising, these re-entry programs are only part of the solution. The programs are small in size, in white-collar sectors, and demand outstrips actual positions. For example, GM’s Take-2 career re-entry program had 400 applicants competing for 10 internships.
Tami Forman, the executive director of Path Forward, says she sees reentry programs as a step toward helping women get back to work. Forman says that for tech companies struggling with diversity and competing for talent, these programs make business sense because it taps into a population of highly qualified women. Currently, Path Forward works with 20 companies, including PayPal, Instacart, and Quantcast on return-to-work programs. “What I think is also going to start to happen is as these companies see success with this model, they will grow that program over time and see that they can find great people who they want to hire and keep and who become really amazing employees,” said Forman.
But the question that remains is whether a woman with significant work experience would be interested in an internship instead of a full-time job—and if that’s her best option. That it’s even a consideration points to how difficult it can be to re-enter to workforce after a significant break, as well as how hard it is to find employers who will hire professional women with resume gaps.
“For a woman who’s been out for 15 years, it is a welcomed opportunity,” says Jennifer Gefsky, the co-founder of Après, a networking site for women with gaps in their resumes that boasts 20,000 members. Gefsky says that the women on Après have generally been out of the workforce for around two years, and 41 percent says they intend to return full-time. “There is not this message coming from corporate America saying ‘we want women who have gaps in their resumes.’ They don’t really think like that,” says Gefsky. “The more examples we can show of successful returners, the easier it is for companies to feel like they’re not taking a huge leap of faith.”
Gefsky, who was the deputy general counsel for Major League Baseball before she took a career break, says that confidence is big part of the issue. She argues that return internship program helps women who have dropped out feel less isolated, with networking and job training helping to build confidence—the latter of which is particularly important since there’s an established confidence gap between men and women, which is exacerbated by dropping out of the workforce. “There’s so much fear factor,” says Gefsky. “I think it’s essential for women who are returning to work to network with one another. It makes the process easier, and the process is not easy. There will be rejection and it will take time. It can be scary.”
For Stephens, the internship was exciting and validating. But she also she felt unsure about whether it would jump-start her career. “Would that internship have been enough to have other employers take me seriously as a candidate? I still don’t know the answer to that. After being out for 20 years, would three months be enough?” reflects Stephens.
On the part of the companies, Forman says that it’s crucial to address these concerns by providing training and work that actually fill the resume gap. “The return internship needs to produce mission-critical work for the company,” explains Forman. For these programs to work for both parties, the company needs assign “real work” so to speak in order to reap value from the return internship. In turn, this aspect is important for the participants as well. Forman explains that doing real work, and not busy work often associated with post-college internships, is what helps women returning to the workforce to update her resume with relevant experience. Further, Forman says that companies shouldn’t feel like they’re getting a discount. Once returnship interns become employees, they should be compensated at the same rate as others in the same job function.
Of course, another part of the solution is to make sure that the off-ramps don’t turn into dead ends. Forman says that in addition to return internships, better paid-leave policies and measures to ensure that women return to the workforce faster can help. According to research by economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn at Cornell University, the U.S. has fallen far behind other OECD countries in female labor-force participation in the last decade as other countries embraced and expanded family-friendly workplace policies. (On the flip side, however, they speculated that generous leave mandates could lead to women taking longer leaves, and employers discriminating women for high-level positions in anticipation that they’ll drop out.)
For women who return to the workforce via return internships, Forman says most don’t mind starting off in a temporary, intern position, “What they want is to get back and be able to be productive and accomplish things again.” With the rise of return internships, there’s at least some hope that employers are taking note of just how serious the need to support women in the workplace is, as well as how they can create better incentives and policies that keep women in the workforce long-term.
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