In 2008, Goldman became a pioneer in its pilot Returnship Program, an internship-like initiative aimed at helping high potentials who have left the workforce for an extended period of time to restart their careers. The lauded paid, 10-week, highly competitive program is said to have offered full-time jobs to 50% of the total 150 returnees in the program since its launch.
Yet recently, Fast Company discovered that no one was hired from the 2016 Returnship program because none of the participants were deemed “qualified” enough. Fast Company asked Goldman to verify that no returnee was hired in the past 12 months, but as of publishing, the company has yet to provide comment.
Several years ago, companies started realizing that a substantial percentage of their highly educated, skilled, and experienced female employees were leaving the workforce at some point. Between 2004 and 2009, a study found that 31% of these high-achieving women opted out of work, mostly to care for their children. New York Times magazine called the phenomenon the “opt-out revolution” in 2013.
“Women are making up the majority of graduation rates across the board, and they’re obviously the ones who are having children and usually have primary responsibilities over the kids,” says Jennifer Gefsky, cofounder of Après, a LinkedIn-like platform that connects women returning to work with companies.
“So, you’re seeing this in an increase in graduation rates, an increase in population coming into the workforce of women representation, and then women opting out. Companies are starting to understand, we have to look at hiring these women back into the workforce because they’re making up a significant portion of the brain power in this country.”
If it’s true that Goldman hired no one from its most recent Returnship Program, this does bring up some questions on return-to-work programs. For instance, are these programs really working? What are the barriers we still need to cross to get women who have opted out back into the workforce? And do we really know what’s good for returning parents?
Understanding the importance of getting women professionals back into the job market is one thing; actually implementing a successful program is another. Through working with 300 companies, from firms as large as Microsoft to small nonprofits with only a handful of employees, Gefsky says she sees challenges come up over and over again:
Women who have opted out still face the motherhood penalty. In their focus group, Gefsky says they found that, regardless of how highly educated or previously successful the women were, they were still less-than-ideal candidates in the eyes of recruiters. It’s basically the motherhood penalty that’s deeply embedded in our work culture. For a successful program, you need buy-in from all departments in the organization. If you don’t have buy-in, the programs are not going to be successful, says Gefsky.
“People have to understand that the programs are important and valuable to the organization, and why it’s valuable to the organization.”
In other words, there has to be support for the women not just in the program, but also throughout the company.
It’s difficult for smaller organizations to have re-entry programs because it’s expensive. It’s simple: Larger companies can offer returnships with higher pay, while smaller companies have minimal pay to offer, with no guarantee of a permanent position at the end. Additionally, the program itself prevents participants from looking for other jobs during the process. Returnships in companies that can’t afford to offer decent pay is a concern, and should only be chosen after other avenues have been exhausted.
Moving forward, companies should start looking at ways to keep their talent on board, whether that’s to offer them more flexibility or other options so that they don’t actually have to leave the workforce, says Miriam Javitch, an executive coach who’s worked with a broad range of companies from Deloitte, Ernst & Young, and HSBC.
“It’s true that actually leaving the workforce and trying to re-enter is a lot harder than keeping your toes in the water and trying to stay in,” she says.
What does that kind of flexibility look like? Companies have a lot of leeway today to figure that out, as “it’s not taboo anymore to make lateral moves or go part-time to have flexible work arrangements,” says Javitch. “There’s this understanding that there’s a conversation. And you can have conversations about what that means and what that looks like” for each employee.
Editor’s Note: A Goldman spokesperson has clarified the company’s stance on the returnship program, saying: “This year, similar to years past, we were pleased with quality of the participants in the program, and were happy to extend offers to a significant portion of the class. We remain committed to the Returnship program, and are proud to continue providing re-entry internships and employment opportunities in the years to come.”