Why returnships can help women smash the glass ceiling

Goldman Sachs are often credited with introducing returnships in 2008. Since then, hundreds of companies have followed suit.

Have you ever had the fear when returning to work after a holiday? After two weeks of sun, sea and sangria, you return to work and spend several minutes staring at your keyboard trying to desperately remember the password to your computer.

Now imagine how you would feel if, instead of a couple of weeks, you did not work for several years. Maybe you took time out to mind your children, maybe you were caring for a relative, maybe you were unable to work due to your own ill health. After that period, if you decided that you would like to return to work, where would you even start? 



There is so much untapped talent out there among people who took time off work for whatever reason. Often those talented people can feel intimidated by the idea of returning to the workplace and they can find it difficult to get back to the senior positions they had before their career break.

According to a PWC study in the UK in 2018, 76% of professional women on a career break want to return to work. However, a US study found that 23% of women cited the stigma of having a gap on their CV as a barrier to re-entering the workplace.

Other issues stopping women returning to work include inflexible hours and the lack of part-time work. 

This is where returnships come in. Goldman Sachs are often credited with introducing returnships in 2008, and since then hundreds of companies have followed suit. Returnships are somewhat similar to student internships.

Companies hire people for a set period of time and during the period they support the returner with mentoring and training, which can cover technological advances, social media usage and cultural changes.

Flexible hours

Returnships also often include flexible hours and the ability to work from home if needed. The schemes allow returners to gain skills and confidence, and it gives employers access to experienced candidates. There is typically a high likelihood of a permanent role being offered following a returnship, if the placement has been a success. 


Research from MMB, the magazine for working women, found that 41% of the 1,000 working mothers surveyed feared they would not be put forward for promotion or that their career would stall on returning to work.

Returnships can reduce these risks as, when they are done properly, they give those returning to work a set out career path.

Now the Irish government is recognising the value of returnships. As part of Budget 2020, the Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty announced plans for the financing and development of returnships. The minister said that while often women have “bucketloads of experience”, they often lack the “confidence and belief in themselves” to return to work. The department is planning on launching the programme early in the new year. 

"While returnships will not solve all of the problems women face in the working world, they are an excellent step in supporting women."

This follows the UK government, which has invested millions of pounds in recent years in encouraging people to return to work, both in the public sector and in the private sector. There has been impressive success in the UK.

Gender pay-gap

The vast majority of UK business leaders (83%) now have a return to work programme in place, either formally or informally, according to research from recruitment consultancy Robert Half UK, and nearly half have supports in place for people returning to work after becoming parents.


While returnships will not solve all of the problems women face in the working world, they are an excellent step in supporting women (and it is mainly women - 98% of parents that stay at home to mind children in Ireland are women).

Returnships can be another piece of the puzzle in solving the gender pay gap and getting more women on boards and at c-suite level.

We should be welcoming these programmes, and those talented returning women, with open arms. 

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