A career break shouldn't spell doom for a woman's work life

'Returnship' programmes for women who want to get back into professional life don't just benefit employees; they help companies, too

Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda attends a council meeting by phone in her office due to the council's temporary work from home policy during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Seattle, Washington, U.S. March 23, 2020. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson
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The economic fallout of Covid-19 has already pushed tens of millions of people across the world into unemployment, the majority of them women.

The severity of the crisis, coupled with the fact that the burden of caring for the sick, the elderly and young children in our society falls disproportionately on women, suggests difficult times ahead for women's careers. The progress women have made in the labour force over the last 30 years could be reversed in a period of one year or less.

Complacency, however, would be premature. Once the pandemic has passed (which, with any luck, will be within a year or two), companies will be ramping up business activity to satisfy pent-up demand. The war for talent may enter its most bitterly fought phase to date. Companies should begin planning now in order to reintegrate talented professionals who were knocked out of the labour force by the crisis.

A 2012 article in Harvard Business Review titled 'The 40-Year-Old Intern' first popularised the concept of "returner programmes" – short-term stints designed to allow professionals to resume their careers after an extended break. Also commonly called "return-to-work programmes" or "returnships" (Goldman Sachs's trademarked term), these programmes vary in structure from organisation to organisation, but the promised benefits are the same.

Returners receive the opportunity to find their feet again and catch up with changes in their industry, and organisations get eager, experienced talent without the usual commitment, as companies are not required to hire returners upon completion of the programme.

In the years since, returner programmes have taken off, especially in the US, UK and India. Between 2014 and 2018, the number of employer programmes in the UK climbed from three to 64. Examples include JPMorgan’s global ReEntry programme, which has garnered more than 170 participants since launching in 2013, and EY’s Reconnect programme for professionals with managerial experience ranging from tech to tax advisory.

Effective implementation of these programmes entails a deeper understanding of what makes them succeed. For a recent thesis as part of Insead’s Executive Master in Change programme, one of us (Henriane) delved into General Electric’s Return to Career (R2C) initiative in Dubai, which was run in late 2016 as a first of its kind in the Middle East.

Considering the paradigm’s novelty in the region, the 10-week pilot programme was undeniably successful. Four of the eight participants were offered jobs at GE. Henriane interviewed five returners (all women, four of whom were hired at the end of the programme), three of the line managers who participated in R2C and the programme manager.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - November 25, 2019: L-R Despo Michaelides, AXA Insurance, Debbie Kristansen, Novo Cinemas, Charles Haworth, Commercial director/ D&I leader GE renewable energy, Rachael Ellyard, Talent Leader MENA EY and Rebecca Jeffs, Serco Middle East. Panel discussion on women and the challenges they face at work. Monday, November 25th, 2017 at Rove Hotel, Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Debbie Kristiansen, chief executive of Novo Cinemas, speaks during a panel discussion on women in the workplace, in 2019. Seen with Despo Michaelides, chief human resources officer at AXA Insurance Gulf (far left) and Charles Haworth, commercial director at General Electric-owned GE Renewable Energy's Mena office. Chris Whiteoak / The National 
As the programme manager's charges took their first steps back into the corporate world, she described herself as a "godmother duck" and the returners as "swans"

Befitting Dubai’s status as an international business hub with a majority of its population from overseas, R2C returners hailed from a diverse array of countries, including India, Turkey and the US. All had been part of dual career couples, and most had gone to Dubai for their husband’s job, putting their own careers on hold. They viewed R2C as their way back to professional fulfilment – or, as one returner put it, “the answer to my prayers”.

In 2018, UK-based consultancies Timewise and Women Returners co-authored a set of guidelines and best practices for the design and implementation of returner programmes. Though R2C was planned and executed without the benefit of these guidelines, the programme fulfilled all but one of them.

R2C’s programme manager built a strong business case for the programme, emphasising access to an untapped pool of high-calibre talent. Recruiting-related messaging were keyed to the interests of returners, including job satisfaction, work identity and support with reintegration into the workplace.

GE opted for a 10-week programme (on the shorter side of returner programmes, which can last as long as six months), targeting professionals with 10 years’ experience who had reached at least the mid-managerial level before their career break. Additionally, returners were expected to have a specific technical background (eg: engineering, digital/software, supply chain or project management).

To find professionals who fit the above profile, R2C mainly used LinkedIn, Twitter and other online channels for expat women in Dubai. In all, 400 applications were submitted, which GE narrowed down to three or four candidates for each of the eight positions.

The initiative provided mentoring, frequent interactions with the programme manager and line manager, a 2.5-day cultural orientation to GE and weekly talks by women role models, among other features meant to support returners.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - October 06, 2019: The Power of Culture in Knowledge Development with H.E. Noura bint Mohammed Al Kaabi, Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development, UAE. Qudwa is a forum for teachers, by teachers that aims to elevate the teaching profession in the UAE. Sunday the 6th of October 2019. Manarat Al Saadiyat, Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Noura Al Kaabi, UAE Minister of Culture and Youth, has been an advocate of the UAE's private sector doing more to retain women in the labour force. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Remote working and flexible hours were available upon request, for returners and all other GE employees in the UAE.

R2C’s 50 per cent success rate was comparable to those of more established returner programmes in the US.

In addition, GE tracked the performance of the returners both during and (for those who were hired) after the programme.

Timewise and Women Returners’ final guideline, however, recommends spreading the word throughout an organisation to prepare the ground for a larger-scale rollout. This pointer came too late for R2C, which did not involve a post-programme communications plan.

R2C’s solid, stable framework and support services created a feeling of psychological safety within which returners could take risks, experiment and empower one another.

In interviews, the returners described the 10-week experience as “a lab”, “being part of a family” and “a safe space”. The programme manager adopted a protective stance toward her charges as they took their first steps back into the corporate world, describing herself as a “godmother duck” and the returners as “swans that became so beautiful”.

The interviewees described feeling what social psychologists call "stereotype threat" or "social identity threat". Self-consciousness gave rise to a lack of self-confidence; they feared that any tiny misstep would confirm the stereotype that returners were unsuited to the workplace.

Yet R2C gave them a safe space within which to navigate their negative feelings as a group. We found it telling that none of the returners had included R2C on their LinkedIn profile at the time of the interviews. Having done its work of facilitating adjustment, the “returner” identity could be discarded like a cocoon in favour of a general employee identity.

Research shows that role modelling – an important aspect of R2C’s support system – is associated with a reduction in stereotype threat. Implicit in the concept of returner programmes are two other factors that work to buffer against stereotype threat: mentoring and reframing the threat as a challenge to realise one’s true potential.

The returners were not the only ones changed by R2C. The recruiting manager responsible for selecting R2C participants said: “I will be honest, as a woman who has not been a mother, when I see big career gaps, I assume this career gap is by choice…I am not sure about the commitment.”

However, looking back over the R2C experience, the recruiting manager said, “What I realised is a lot of these women did not mean to leave for four years…Sometimes you cannot go back. Sometimes, you have relocated with your husband. A person has the right to take some time off.”

She added: “I think once a woman makes a decision to come back, she is going to be a bigger star than she was and these women were already stars before.”

Similarly, following earlier reluctance regarding the programme, one line manager said he “could have hired any of the four shortlisted applicants presented” after reviewing their CVs.

To be sure, R2C was only one pilot programme. However, it shows that even on a modest scale, returner programmes can effect transformation for both the organisation and the employee. Further, companies that commit to doing them in the correct manner may be able to tap otherwise squandered human capital inaccessible to their competitors. In short, returner programmes are serious contenders in a post-Covid-19 war for talent.

Zoe Kinias is an associate professor of organisational behaviour at Insead and the academic director of its gender initiative

Henriane Mourgue d’Algue is an executive coach and a graduate of Insead’s Executive Master in Change programme