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Would you offer an internship to a former Bay Street investment banker?

Before rushing to judgment, consider the optics. For many, Toronto's Bay Street evokes imagery of a cutthroat work environment with punishing hours and intensively competitive co-workers. For the women among the rarefied Bay Street crowd who choose to take a hiatus from their careers, it may seem like there is no turning back.

Fiona Wilson, portfolio manager for Guardian Capital LP, counts herself as one of the lucky ones. After leaving her former role as portfolio manager of global derivatives at the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System to spend more time with her children, she took active measures to keep her capital-market links intact. She kept in touch with her peers and stayed on top of market conditions.

Ultimately, Ms. Wilson attributes her smooth segue back to a Bay Street role to the network of people willing to offer their time to help her get back on track. For those who take a longer leave or lose touch with their professional connections, re-entry can seem daunting.

"It's the same catch-22 when you get out of school: You can't get a job without a current reference and you can't get a current reference without a job," explained Martha Fell, chief executive officer of Women in Capital Markets, a Toronto-based not-for-profit group dedicated to promoting the entry, advancement and development of women in the industry.

"Someone needs to take the risk in hiring you, believing in you and giving you a chance," she said in an interview.

With sponsorship from BMO Nesbitt Burns Inc., Women in Capital Markets launched an award for women looking to re-establish their careers. In addition to a $5,000 grant toward an education program and access to a mentor, the award offers women a three-month internship at the bank.

For former Bay Street types, the idea of an internship may sound like a belittling. If they can overcome the feeling that an internship is simply a summer opportunity for students, the model could work tremendously well, not only in banking but in a variety of industries. Internships could open doors to the sorts of careers many women felt they could never return to.

"The idea of an internship has a stigma of being something targeted as free work," Ms. Fell acknowledged, but noted that this is a paid stint directed at professionals with previous work experience.

Although the idea of a paid internship for experienced women in finance may sound like a novelty, it isn't on Wall Street. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. launched a Returnship program in 2008 for individuals seeking to restart their careers. (Goldman Sachs trademarked the term, preventing Women in Capital Markets from using it.) Beyond the financial world, Sara Lee Corp. also runs a return-to-work program.

In Canada, potential candidates for this award are drawn from a very small pool. The number of women in Canadian capital markets, including wealth management, is about 6,300, according to a 2008 Catalyst report, or 39 per cent of the industry overall. Women held only 17 per cent of all line positions, which entails profit-and-loss, revenue-generation and direct client responsibility. And only line positions carry suitable responsibilities that are necessary for advancement to more senior positions.

"Obviously we are not blind. When you look at the statistics relating to our industry, that representation of women in our work force is actually low, and lower than we think it should be," said Tom Milroy, chief executive officer of BMO Nesbitt Burns. "We started to think about what we can do as a firm to address that."

Mr. Milroy noted that although the "Return to Bay Street Award" is part of the bank's larger "Equity Through Education" initiative, BMO can reap benefits from the program by tapping into a deeper talent pool of highly qualified professionals and fostering a work force that is consistent with the broader world.

Because retention of talent remains a top goal for many firms, Ms. Fell believes this award program provides benefits for both employer and employee.

"There are too many women out there who left Bay Street for a variety of reasons and it's wasted talent."

Leah Eichler is a senior editor at Thomson Reuters who writes about women, their careers and success. E-mail:

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