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‘Returnships’ help stay-at-home mothers get careers back on track

Something big happened in the world’s workplaces while Laura Boisvert was at home raising kids: The internet. From 1999 to 2011, while Ms. Boisvert was a stay-at-home mom in Toronto, the internet went from a fast way to send letters to the ubiquitous backbone of most workplaces.

She had used computers in her previous job at the Sears Canada head office, but so much had changed that she was way behind.

Laura Boisvert, hangs out with her kids Jasmine, 17, left, Avril,19, and André, 10, at their Scarborough home.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

“I felt stupid,” said Ms. Boisvert, 52, describing her first attempt back into the work force, doing administrative tasks part-time at a friend’s law office. She had to learn so many new technical skills that she felt like a drag, and says she never really settled into the role. “It was challenging and frustrating.”

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Toronto startup ThinkData Works has made it a priority to help women in this situation and is challenging other companies to do the same. Co-founder Bryan Smith said his data analysis firm is offering a “returnship” – a short-term paid placement aimed at helping women relaunch their professional careers after extended stints at home.

“We’re looking to provide the opportunity to people who may be more senior and experienced in the world they’re coming from but who require short-term, contract or part-time work as they transition back to work,” he said, noting there is no specific job description, salary or term because they will develop a role around a successful candidate’s skills. “We want to respect the knowledge of people applying.”

It’s not just the new employees who will benefit, Mr. Smith says. He sees it as a way to attract skilled senior people to the startup world while addressing the significant gender gap in tech at the same time. Shortly after posting the opportunities on the ThinkData Works’ website in April, the company began to hear from potential applicants, even though it has not advertised the positions at all, Mr. Smith said.

“A lot of the initial feedback [from applicants] is, ‘Is this really real?’ We have to say, ‘Yeah, it’s something real!’ ”

In the United States, returnships have become an increasingly popular option for women looking to brush up on skills and ease back into the work force, particularly in the startup world of Silicon Valley. Large companies such as IBM, Goldman Sachs and Deloitte all offer such back-to-work programs.

Toronto’s most prominent returnship is Women in Capital Markets’ Return to Bay Street, which works with a broad group of financial institutions to help women relaunch careers. In four years, the initiative has placed 42 women back in the industry.

Critics of returnships have said slotting experienced female workers into internship-type roles can undermine their skills or delay their search for a permanent job. But sometimes a taste of success is just what a woman needs to feel confident and ready to commit long-term, says Beatrix Dart, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

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She believes a truly helpful returnship involves meaningful work and could lead to a permanent position.

Dr. Dart, who teaches strategic management, says when women are out of the work force for a long time, they often experience the collapse of their professional networks, which can make it harder to find the right opportunity. Other common hurdles include doubts that employers would hire someone who has been off for so long, guilt over stepping back from family responsibilities, and uncertainty about what types of jobs to pursue.

“Many women say, ‘I know what I don’t want to do, but what is it that I do want to do, and am I good enough for it? Can I prove that I have a skill set that is relevant for today’s world?’ ”

Dr. Dart is the executive director of the Rotman Initiative for Women in Business, which runs a Back to Work training program that gets hundreds of applications for 35 spots available each year.

“You have to allow women to work through all of those issues,” said Dr. Dart, adding the program concludes with participants giving a professional presentation to representatives from real businesses, which often leads to hires. “[These workers] have a different level of maturity and experience that shows very quickly, but might need some extra support finding their niche.”

For Ms. Boisvert, that niche was a multifaceted role at recruiting firm TalentMinded, which initially hired her for a short-term project that rolled into a permanent position, which she still holds.

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TalentMinded is now helping ThinkData Works recruit for its returnships. Co-founder Kim Benedict has done a lot of thinking about the best ways to increase female participation in sales and tech, and says one solution is to address the language used in job postings. She says terms such as “rock star,” “ninja” and “relentless” can give the impression of a male-focused office culture, as can phrases like “don’t take no for an answer.”

Several mothers who recently returned to the work force have found employment at TalentMinded, which offers flexible hours and allows staff to work from home.

Ms. Benedict is excited about ThinkData Works’ returnships and hopes other firms offer similar positions. She cautions that increasing a company’s gender diversity takes conscious effort. Employers should start by thinking about how a woman with a family might feel about working there. Are the hours flexible? Is part-time work an option?

“Part of the problem is that there are just more men in the funnel,” she said, explaining businesses in a huge rush to hire are less likely to get diverse candidates. “You need to try harder, and it will take longer.”

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