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Rethinking Returnships for Retaining Women

These high-level internships can help organizations tap into an overlooked talent pool, but they aren’t a cure-all.

It started as a whisper. Back in 2008, Goldman Sachs, which originally coined the term returnships, began a high-level, paid internship program for professionals returning to the workforce after an extended absence, with the opportunity for a permanent role. The participants were mostly women who had dropped out to raise children and now wanted to restart their careers.

That whisper is now growing louder. Returnships have become more common; they are a part of the conversation in business and media circles. The U.K. prime minister is even getting in on the act: The day of the country’s 2017 budget announcement, Theresa May unveiled a £5 million (US$6.2 million) fund to identify opportunities for — guess what? — returnships.

iRelaunch, a U.S.-based business specializing in returnships, has identified more than 100 active programs globally, in sectors as diverse as construction, advertising, and financial services. They’re clearly making a mark: Many corporate heads of diversity, when asked what they’re doing to create senior-level opportunities for women, will reply, “We’ve got this covered — we have a returnship program.” But the situation is not that simple. Both organizations and women seeking to return to the workforce should be aware that these programs aren’t a panacea.

To be sure, there’s good reason such programs are gaining momentum: Returnships are a nicely packaged, labeled, and time-bound way of accessing the huge untapped talent pool of women seeking to relaunch their careers after a break.

The programs tend to run anywhere from 10 weeks to six months, for a group of five to 15 returners. Participants are provided with work experience, coaching, and bespoke training to help them reacclimatize to work. The aim is for “returners” to be offered permanent employment at the end of the program.

For many women, programs such as these are a blessing. “I had a huge sense of unfulfilled potential.… This returnship has meant that I can flex my creative muscles again.… Most importantly, it has made me believe in my ideas again,” said Sarah Shepherd, of ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky. Shepherd is a copywriter who recently returned to work via a returnship program aimed specifically at getting more women into creative departments.

The “maternal wall,” where women find their careers stalling once children come along, is real. Women are more likely than men to take time out when the demands of family and work collide, and returnships are a viable route back over that wall. The programs recognize and use people’s existing skills, experiences, insights, interests, and contacts, and they provide a safe environment to grow and learn — giving returners time and space to adjust to working life, and to get up to speed on business intelligence, technology, legislation, and other things that seem to change daily in the office.

Intelligent, brilliant, hard-working people have performed wonders to get returnship programs off the ground. They’ve helped some women find professional, mid-career jobs. This is to be applauded and encouraged. But although we welcome the value returners bring — and are delighted these programs are helping some women get back to work — we also have reservations. Here are some things for organizations, and women seeking to return, to consider:

• The programs are too small. There often can be 2,000 well-qualified applicants for only 10 places. What happens to the other 1,990? We routinely see in our work women who embark on seeking a returnship brimming with hope and vigor, keen to add value, then experiencing rejection after rejection. They might not have started out lacking in confidence, but as they continue to hear “no,” they set their sights lower and lower.

• They are also infrequent. These programs recruit only once a year. What happens to those looking in the other 11 months of the year, and to all the jobs that need filling every day of the week?

• They can be costly to run. Returnships are often kicked off with an expensive PR launch. Then it takes a team to get the program up and running. It’s not unusual to make at least one full-time person responsible for it — and often more are involved, particularly if you take into account the career coaches and mentors involved.

• They are discrete. Returnships are rarely integrated throughout the whole organization. Only certain departments will take on a returner. There is sometimes — although not always — a resistance to put a returner into a frontline role.  Some hiring managers, when faced with the choice of a returner or someone who has been doing the same role at a competitor, would rather opt for the latter. And because many returnships take place apart from the real day-to-day operations and complexities, the programs can carry a sense of tokenism.

• They can create a stigma.  Despite the competitiveness to secure a returnship, participants can be seen as needing a program to secure a job. The programs often come with protracted onboarding processes or a period of time doing a project-based role. We see many women who are ready to start work immediately, with simply the same induction process as most other candidates. They don’t need a program: What they need is a job.

• Returnships do not address the underlying problem. This is our biggest concern. In any organization starting, let’s say, 10 women a year on a returnship, many more women already in the system are likely to be leaving. Our own group’s research, undertaken with the University of Edinburgh Business School, shows that many women in sectors such as banking, law, and advertising leave every year when demands outside of work become overwhelming.

Returnships don’t tackle the reasons women leave the workforce in the first place.

Returnships don’t tackle the reasons women leave the workforce in the first place. We hear and see the same themes irrespective of sector: a lack of support for flexible or part-time working patterns; hiring and progression practices that favor linear career paths; people in positions of power promoting those who “look like them”; and so on. As long as these factors persist, women will continue to leave companies.

Ultimately, returnships, although well intentioned, sit on the edge of the organization. To be effective, they should be an integral part of a broader strategy on helping women build sustainable, fulfilling careers for the whole of their working life. Company leaders must recognize that returners are a rich source of talent all year round, know that returnships are a great addition to other means of discovering talent, and work to find more ways to reach this pool of women ready to shift or reignite their careers.

Lisa Unwin

Lisa Unwin is cofounder of U.K.-based She’s Back, which helps women build careers with a focus on work–family balance and advises companies on how to attract and retain more women. 

Deborah Khan

Deborah Khan is cofounder of She’s Back.

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