Women at Work Don’t call it a comeback

Women are finding new ways to re-enter the job market

From accepting new roles to opening their own businesses, women are employing new tools such as bootcamps and returnships — and leaning on each other — to make successful transitions back into the workforce.

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About 2.2 million non-working mothers between 25 and 54 years old with bachelor's degrees or higher say they want to work, according to iRelaunch.

After three years of maternity leave, Wenfei Wang deployed her return-to-work strategy with precision. She woke up at 5 a.m. and packed a lunch box before hunkering down at a nearby library to study software coding languages, full-stack development and technical interview practice questions. 

For more than a year, starting in August 2019, Wang, a website developer in Santa Clara County, California, endured rejection and closed doors after more rejections and more closed doors. 

The three-year hiatus became an intractable hurdle, but Wang persisted with her search. “I do not want to give up everything,” she said, referring to her master’s degree in computer science and five years of tech industry experience. “It’s just because of the gap that they do not interview me, so I still want to try.”

Wenfei Wang had a lengthy job search following three years of maternity leave. (Photo provided by Wang)

Wang’s experience illustrates the ongoing challenges and stigmas faced by many women who take time off from work to care for children. 

The share of women who are working falls by 18 percentage points in the quarter they give birth to their first child, the U.S. Census Bureau reports, with subsequent births decreasing workforce participation even further.

UK researchers found that three years after childbirth, only 27.8% of women are employed full time or self-employed; 17% leave employment completely during the five years following childbirth.

Wang and other talented job seekers like her are called “returners,” and it was through a “returnship” program that Wang finally made a breakthrough. Returnships are formal reentry programs that typically last from three to four months; they are designed for mature, talented, job seekers who want to return to full-time professional employment but need to update their skill sets.

Helping job-seekers return to workforce

Goldman Sachs debuted one of the first returnship programs in 2008, and more businesses, such as EvolveMe and Path Forward, developed formal programs to help professional job hunters update their skill sets and return to full-time employment.

iRelaunch, a company dedicated to assisting women with career reentry, partners with the Society of Women Engineers on an initiative for returning tech professionals, the STEM Re-entry Task Force. Nearly 400 people have participated in the program, and 85% have been hired into permanent jobs after their returnship was completed, Carol Fisherman Cohen, co-founder of iRelaunch, told the Harvard Business Review in June 2019.

Through a returnship program hosted by Women Back to Work, a nonprofit recruiting organization, Wang landed extensive interviews with Tesla. Wang demonstrated that she hadn’t lost touch with the tech industry, scoring 100% on Tesla’s returnship technical assessment – a difficult feat even for non-returners. 

Wang accepted a job offer from Tesla – one month after her first interview. “I feel the pressure removed finally,” she said. “Feeling desperate for opportunities – I can stop thinking about that now. I got a new life. I’m really lucky and appreciative of Women Back to Work.”

Founded as an offshoot of Akraya Inc., Women Back to Work has returnship alliances with companies such as Cisco Systems, Facebook and Farmers Insurance Group. “Companies can’t afford to not look at this talent pool anymore,” said Sonu Ratra, founder of the California-based nonprofit. “There was a war for talent before (Covid-19).”

Program Manager Deepika Chhibber, left, and co-founder Sonu Ratra’s nonprofit recruiting firm, Women Back to Work, serves women in the tech field.

“There’s going to be a war for talent as soon as we all start returning to work and the economy improves,” said Ratra, who is also president and co-founder of Akraya, an IT consulting and staffing company. “The new normal as we emerge out of Covid should be that returners are going to be a part of workforce strategy.”

Deepika Chhibber, program director at Women Back to Work, overcame a five-year resume gap in her return to the workforce. “I think we are heading towards a world where people have the confidence to say, ‘I want to step back right now, professionally.’ ” 

But when those people come back into the workforce, they will have that opportunity and given a fair chance to reenter, Chhibber said. “Now, it just so happens that it’s usually the women who step back.”

Same company, new roles

While family caregiving still falls mainly on women, those are not the only reasons working women decide to leave their jobs and seek new paths. A subset of returners are “pivoters”; people who return to work for the same employer but with a change in role and responsibility. 

In the late 1980s, Nancy J. Lanning earned an MBA from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Soon thereafter, she moved west to work at Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington.

“My job was very satisfying and it paid well,” she said. “But the 80-hour work weeks were brutal mentally, emotionally, and physically. I needed a break.” 

Lanning took a six-month leave of absence to travel the globe. When she got home, she pursued her passion for animal welfare and started Kindred Spirits, a habitat sanctuary for reptiles. 

“I still worked 80 hours a week,” she said. “But I felt that I was making a greater contribution to the good than I did as a program manager and product developer.”

Twenty years later, a former Microsoft colleague recruited Lanning to come back to the software giant as a consultant. 

“Running a nonprofit takes a lot of capital, and I was spending more time fundraising than with the animals,” she said. “Plus, Microsoft is a different company compared to when I previously worked there, and I’m a different person. 

“My career is no longer my primary focus. I care more about the quality of my life both in the short- and long-term,” Lanning said. “As a consultant, I can better control my time and what projects I work on.”

Another pivoter is Michelle Traverse. The program director at the Community Therapeutic Day School has worked for the Lexington, Massachusetts, school in various capacities for 28 years.

Michelle Traverse took a 12-year hiatus from workforce. (Photo provided by Traverse)

“My pregnancies were challenging ones for each of my three children,” Traverse said. “When I was on bed rest with my first child, my maternity leave started early. Still, I planned to return in September when school started.”

But Traverse did not return – for more than a decade. 

“My husband had convinced me that we should have a lifestyle, which we could maintain without my salary,” she said. “I was hesitant; I value my independence, but he was right. My kids needed me full time, and I needed them.” 

Recognizing her value, Traverse said the school bosses called a couple of times a year to ask if she was ready to come back. After a 12-year absence, she started working a couple of days a week, meeting with school students and families as private clients. 

“I recognize how fortunate I am to have had such flexibility,” said Traverse, who is now back working full time at the school. 

Changing course

Along with returners and pivoters, the comeback work experience includes a third group called “emergers.” These career-lane changers chart a completely different course.

Linda Lautenberg worked on Wall Street after earning an MBA from Harvard University. When her first child was born, she planned to take a short break from her career in real estate finance. That break lasted 18 years. 

Laura Lautenberg, EvolveMe co-founder. (Photo by Allyssa Peek/ Peek Photography)

“I still worked during that time,” said Lautenberg. “I volunteered, led, and managed community service projects, and helped with local nonprofits. But my primary job was taking care of my children.”

When she decided to go back to work outside the home, Lautenberg found the process isolating, and teamed up with another “returner,” Judy Schoenberg, to create EvolveMe, which specializes in helping women over 40 return to the workforce. 

For Lilah Guertin, it took 18 weeks to transform from a preschool teacher and service-industry worker into a tech-savvy software professional. But it wasn’t easy.

“The courses were insane,” said Guertin, who earned a certificate in user-experience research at Prime Digital Academy in Minneapolis. “I was spending 80 hours a week working on everything on top of the time in the classroom.”

In 2019, only 26% of computing and mathematics professionals were women, reports the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

“I came into this not knowing a lot about tech,” Guertin said. “But the instructors and program format made it manageable so anyone could understand it. I feel confident now.”

Lilah Guertin, tech boot-camp graduate, enjoys a playful moment on a horse in Stacy, Minn., in 2019. (Photo provided by Guertin)

When Guertin hit the job market, the payoff of their new certificate was not instantaneous. “It was very, very competitive,” said Guertin, who applied for more than 220 jobs.

Despite the slow start, Guertin is happy they chose a boot camp certificate. Eventually, they landed a contract design job at Thomson Reuters Legal in Minneapolis, part of a multinational company providing legal content, industry expertise and technology. 

Just as significant, Guertin found a true calling. “I definitely want to work in tech from now on,” Guertin said. “Making an impact in a UX researcher role is my jam.”  

Kristin Chalmers is also a comeback emerger. She left a demanding job as a television show producer in Los Angeles to care for her baby and uncovered a new calling.

“Pumping (breast milk) didn’t work for me,” said Chalmers. “Plus, I had severe postpartum depression, and my son was a finicky infant. Turns out he’s on the (autism) scale.” 

Chalmers’ doula not only helped her resolve her nursing issues but set her on her new career path. She was encouraged to join a mommy group, and “that’s where and when I found my true identity as a photographer.” 

Kristin Chalmers pivoted to photography. (Photo provided by Chalmers)

With a studio at home, Chalmers has the flexibility she needs to make her life work. “Being a photographer means that I have control over my schedule,” she said. “But the best part is that I witness and capture joy. And that’s not work at all.”

It takes a network

Whether women are returners, pivoters, or emergers in the working world, they would more than likely benefit from a supportive network to help them through career transitions and life milestones.

From her first days at Mueller Communications, Lori Richards had plenty of mentors who showed her the ropes of public relations. But when she became pregnant, her leadership mentors at the firm had one problem: None were women. 

Richards turned to her “mentoring circle,” a group of eight women she met through a professional women’s organization, TEMPO Milwaukee

“The oldest member was in her 80s. She had eight children, and she was still an active practicing attorney,” she said. “So, I said to myself, ‘One baby? I can do this; she’s got eight kids.’”

In 2020, Richards became CEO at Mueller, but her mentoring story continues. 

Kiley Peters met Richards through a TEMPO mentoring program after moving to Milwaukee. At the time, Peters had been running her digital content marketing agency, BrainChild Studios, for two years and was learning firsthand the challenges of leading a staff.

Peters’ dream mentoring match was Richards – a seasoned communications professional with management chops. “I was really just looking for a helping hand to make sure I didn’t run off a cliff,” Peters said with a laugh. 

The two women speak with humor and candor about each other. Peters, an idea-a-minute entrepreneur, values her mentor’s ability to prioritize and think things through. Richards, whose background is more formal, values her mentee’s shake-it-up approach.

Mentor Lori Richards, left, and her mentee, Kiley Peters, enjoy a round of golf at the annual TEMPO Milwaukee golf outing in the summer of 2019. (Photo courtesy of Kiley Peters and Lori Richards)

“I’m a succession business owner,” Richards said. “Kiley is an entrepreneur at her core. She brings the enthusiasm and innovation. I bring the thoughtful and deliberative parts. She encourages me to be more innovative or move forward quickly at times.”

“Lori is such an incredible gift to me,” Peters said. “I want to make sure that I’m contributing to her success in whatever way I can.”

Stacy Cassio, founder and CEO of Pink Mentor Network in Charlotte, North Carolina, worked in male-dominated industries where female mentors were rare, so she started inviting experienced businesswomen to dinner. 

Cassio’s curated meals grew into events, and those events became Pink Mentor Network. 

She developed a business model that targets different turning points in a woman’s career journey.  

“Women are now being greeted with new demands and new needs,” Cassio said. “It’s because our work and our family lives have collided via Zoom, and we’re looking around and saying, where is our support?

“No one has the answers for 2021. We’re all kind of making it up as we go,” Cassio said. “(This is the year) of the pilot program, and what we learn from those experiments will shape work for generations.”

Angie Chatman, Jan Jarvis and Diane M. Bacha contributed to this story.

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