Returnships are everything that is wrong with corporate’s relationship with women

In 2006, Goldman Sachs coined a cute term called a returnship. They loved it so much that they trademarked it.

For those unfamiliar with the term, here is how Indeed.com defines it:

A returnship is an internship for adults who have been away from the traditional workforce for a while. It's essentially a back-to-work program where people can return to their careers without having to start from the bottom of the career ladder. Most returnships last a few weeks to a few months.

While at first glance it may seem like a decent idea – to help women get back to work without having to start from the bottom. But wait, why would they be expected to start at the bottom?

Returnships look a lot like this:

  • They match women with jobs and job categories that they have formal experience in. So really, no opportunity to try a new path.
  • Returnships tend to pull women from the same industry. E.g., banking to banking.
  • Returnships usually support technical or highly specialized roles. Yes, everyone wants a female software engineer!
  • These jobs are lower paid and last a few weeks or a few months. No long term commitments.

But Allison, this doesn't sound so bad! I mean, it's not perfect, but...

Well, here is the issue: by creating a program that only helps a very small subset of women – those with technical degrees or skills, how are we really making an impact? Have you asked women what they need in order to return to the workforce?

Returnship programs often point to statistics showing high percentages of women wanting to return to full-time work, BUT they are only polling women who showed interest in these programs to begin with, so those are not accurate numbers. They are, by design, going to be high.

So what is the fix?

Well, it isn't really that hard.

  1. Women don't need internships (posing as returnships), they need jobs.

Many women who are returning to work after having kids must do a cost analysis of how much they will have to pay for daycare and/or after-school care. And to do all that for four months of low-paid work, just isn't worth it. If you want to help women, commit to a year and pay them fairly. Give them a chance to really thrive.

2. Offer part-time options.

During the pandemic, more women exited the workforce than ever before. It has been stressful and upsetting and they will need time to find support and readjust. Twenty to 30 hours per week is much more realistic to help them transition back into the workforce. These part-time employees will likely become your most engaged full-time employees or they may just be really solid part-time employees. Either way - it's win, win!

3. Stop selling women on your Returnship program and talk to them about how your company is doing it differently.

Do you have flexible work options? A pension? RRSPs? Are you transparent about your salary and benefits? Women are much more likely to apply for roles with companies that are open and transparent. They want to work for employers they can trust and where they feel like they will be valued.  

4. Your part-time staff can help backfill when team members go on vacation or leave with little notice.

The gaps in your talent pool are not going away today, or tomorrow, or next year. Hiring part-time staff who know your systems and who can jump in when needed are way more valuable than you realize.

Think about what it would be worth to have someone who is smart, adaptable and experienced who can take on complex problems and cover while you find a replacement.

Someone who is used to thinking on their feet. Someone say who has experience managing a household, complex schedules and who doesn't need much direction.

Someone like a mom perhaps?

In summary, Returnships had their time, but now it's time to listen to what women really want. Let's start developing more creative ways (like My Parental Leave) to keep women in the workforce during life transitions and create roles that welcome them back to stable work without shame or judgment.

It's really that simple.

Trust, security, and loyalty go both ways. By offering women employment instead of an internship, we can build a more sustainable workforce.

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Allison Venditti is a Career Coach, HR Expert, salary negotiation whisperer and pay transparency and equity advocate. She is the founder of Moms at Work Canada's largest organization committed to helping women earn more money, land better jobs and build community. All with a LARGE HELPING of advocacy baked in.

Allison was named The Globe and Mail Report on Business Top 50 Changemakers 2022, is a regular speaker and media expert with over 100 interviews in 2021. Find out more about how you can work with us and create change for working women everywhere.

Allison Venditti

Career Coach, HR Expert, salary negotiation whisperer, pay transparency and equity advocate. Founder of My Parental Leave and Moms at Work, Canada's largest organization committed to helping women earn more money, land better jobs and build community. Allison was named The Globe and Mail Report on Business Top 50 Changemakers 2022, is a regular speaker and media expert with over 100 interviews in 2021.

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