Building New On-ramps for Returning Women

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Jun 15, 2017

You know that guy who won’t let you in when you’re trying to merge onto the highway? Well, that’s corporate America for returning women.

Three million returners are behind the wheel, blinkers on, pedal to the metal, tuned-up, tuned-in, and ready to merge and accelerate, but they are stuck. We need to open up new lanes to let them in.

When you consider that 5 million jobs in the United States requiring post-secondary education will go unfilled by 2020, there is a strong business case for amping up placement efforts to get more women back into the workforce. A 2015 survey of Harvard Business School alumni found that 37 percent of millennial women and 42 percent of those already married plan to interrupt their career to care for family.

If, as the data suggests, employees are going to continue to off-ramp, or interrupt their careers for a period of time, the questions recruiters and employers need to think about are:

  • Can we afford to lose all this talent?
  • When these professionals want to return, how do we attract and access them?
  • How do we qualify their skills (and readiness) to return?
  • When they do return, how can we set them up to ensure success?

Before we can answer these questions, we need to examine why women today are finding it so hard to re-enter the workforce and to on-ramp. The jobs are there, so why not the opportunities?

The first truth comes from misplaced assumptions. Some companies think that if someone is a superstar and truly career-minded, they would never leave the workforce.  They may also assume that a person who has been out of the workforce for more than a few years is out of touch, rusty, and lacking commitment.

This is simply not true.

The often quoted Hewlett-Packard statistic that men apply for a job when they meet only 60 percent of the qualifications, while women apply only if they meet 100 percent of them, shows that women are well prepared for the challenge far more often than men — they’re just not putting themselves out there.

Companies may also worry about the cultural fit. “Can a person who hasn’t worked in a corporate setting in 10 years work alongside a hard-driving, ambitious millennial?”

Yes. Here’s why bringing the two together is essential:

  1. Young professionals need more women mentors with experience to help them navigate career and life. They need women leaders to show them how to manage difficult situations, handle themselves in a stressful meeting, and reflect the client’s perspective. If women with significant work-life experience become extinct in the business world, nobody grows and nobody wins. Imagine getting the most out of your junior talent and help them reach their full potential.
  2. Women age 47- 66 control 70 percent of all U.S. disposable income and account for 85 percent of all consumer purchases. Companies cannot expect to identify with the needs of women buyers if the number of women building and marketing those products are not well represented in those companies.

The business benefits of having experienced women leaders at all levels of an organization do not stop there.

According to a worldwide survey conducted by human resources consulting firm DDI and nonprofit business research group The Conference Board, the companies that perform best financially have the greatest numbers of women in leadership roles across an organization, not just at the top.

  • Companies with more women in their management teams had 17 percent higher stock price growth and the average operating profit was almost double the industry average (McKinsey & Company). Companies with higher female representation in top management deliver 34 percent greater returns to shareholders (Catalyst)
  • Female managers eclipse their male counterparts at setting basic expectations for their employees, building relationships with their subordinates, encouraging a positive team environment, and providing employees with opportunities to develop within their careers. (Gallup Business Journal)
  • When a group includes more women, its collective intelligence rises. (Harvard Business Review)

As a society, we have to start thinking differently about returning women, recognize their incredible value to long-term business success, and start innovating with them in mind. We need to throw away our assumptions and create more established and systematic pathways for them to both off-ramp and merge back in.

A one-sized-fits-all, linear career path no longer exists in today’s workforce. Companies need to take a hard look at their talent pipeline across all levels to find recruiting solutions that work for them. If returning women can add value to your organization, create a specific channel for recruiting, training and hiring them.

There are three million women with college or advanced degrees trying to merge back into the workforce. Let’s work together to open up a lane and let them in.

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