Published in STEM Magazine
When Kim Poletti exited the tech industry in 2005 to take some time to raise her 10-month-old daughter, she left as a successful project manager leading technical teams for IBM. But when she tried to get back into the workforce 10 years later, she had a hard time getting anyone to even interview her.
“Most people just aren’t interested in looking at somebody who has a 10-year break on their résumé. Trying to convince them that I still had these skills and probably actually had more skills as a result of being a stay-at-home mom was difficult,” Poletti said. “I feel like that role isn’t really valued that much in our culture.”
Across many industries, women who pause their careers find it difficult to return to work as they are often met with recruiters turned off by big résumé gaps and perhaps questioning their reasons for leaving in the first place. In Silicon Valley, this is a major reason why women hold just 18 percent of tech positions and just 33 percent of all jobs in the tech industry, according to an analysis of company reports provided by 500 Miles, a startup that helps candidates make informed decisions about where to work and helps companies find talent.
But as Silicon Valley struggles to bring more women into its ranks, a handful of tech giants, including PayPal, Intel and IBM, are tapping into this group of workers who have long been ignored with programs that are designed to make it easy for them to transition back into the industry. These programs employ numerous tactics to close the deal, including flexible and reasonable work hours that can accommodate women with families, unlike the grueling schedules that dominate some tech companies such as Amazon and many startups.
Companies launching “returnship” programs also train their managers so they know how to work with individuals who are coming back to tech. Rather than avoiding résumés with gaps, they’re trained to look for them: Is this a qualified woman who took a break and may want to come back?
Returnees are given multiple points of contacts throughout their companies by assigned multiple mentors in addition to their direct supervisors. To ensure their careers will be able to advance, companies launching returnship programs offer their interns training across a broad range of topics, including how to write a résumé, conduct a job interview and promote themselves. Additionally, these programs provide women with multiple networking opportunities both inside and outside their companies so they can start rebuilding their connections throughout the tech industry.
“These are talented women who have the skills but they just happened to take some time off,” said Claudia Galvan, the former senior director of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology and an industry veteran. These women find it “almost impossible to go back to work, or if they do go back to work, they have to take totally different jobs from what their career was, a demotion, of course pay cuts — and that’s if they get the opportunity to get back into the workforce.”
“It’s almost considered career suicide to leave,” Galvan said.
At PayPal, for example, the payments-processing company is set to launch its “Recharge” program in February. Through Recharge, PayPal will bring on eight women who will be paid interns with the company for 20 weeks, giving the women an on-ramp back into tech. PayPal is hoping to hire the women at the end of their internships but also wants to give them the freedom to explore other options.
“If the pilot program is successful, we want to expand that,” said M.J. Austin, a senior technologist at PayPal. Austin experienced the difficulty of leaving and coming back herself after leaving the industry in 2001 to raise her newborn children. She was able to return to work three years later by way of eBay and PayPal thanks to a mentor who championed her abilities. “That support coming in the door to say, ‘Hey, we’re behind you,’ will give you an opportunity to really shine.”