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Why returnships are “patronising codswallop”

We've gone off the on-ramp.
We've gone a bit off the on-ramp.

Juggle’s most important mission is to close the women’s leadership gap. We want to see 50% of business leadership positions held by women by 2027. That’s going to require a lot of work in a short amount of time, and while we believe that championing flexible working is the best way of achieving our goal, we’re grateful and supportive towards any initiative that advocates for the push towards gender equality.

So we should be all about returnships, right?

Well… no. Not really. Actually, the opinion in the Juggle offices ranges from “a nice-sounding idea that unwittingly reinforces the ideas it’s trying to challenge” to “utter patronising codswallop.”

Let’s start with the caveat that this is an opinion piece. We’re sure that there are many people who have personally benefited from returnships. But we’re dedicated to upsetting a deep-seated structural bias in working culture, and while returnships seem to contravene that bias, we believe they’re ultimately a symptom of the problem, rather than a solution.

 

What are returnships?

Returnships are, in short, high-level internships. They function as a bridge back to senior roles for experienced professionals who have taken any sort of extended career break. In practice, this applies overwhelmingly to women who have taken time off for pregnancy and childcare. Unlike a stereotypical internship, many returnships are paid (although we’re struggling to find exact figures on how competitive they are) and are typically of 3-6 months. Like an internship, there’s a strong possibility – not a certainty – of an ongoing role at the end.

It’s a way for people – almost exclusively women – who have taken a career break to get back into the workforce at a similar level they left at. So what’s our problem with them? We’re going to highlight some of the key selling-points of returnships, and explain why we disagree.

 

Returnships are paid”

Or at least most of them are. And the compensation appears to be fairly competitive. Not as competitive as, say, a full-time job, and obviously without the other benefits that a full-time contract provides. And if they don’t work out there will obviously be a gap in earnings that might need to be planned for, especially as they probably preclude a serious job-hunt in the meantime. Let’s hope that you’re one of the 50% or so returnships candidates that gets the dangled role.

 

Returnships are useful for women who may lack confidence after a period away from work”

We take issue with this for a number of reasons. The first is that it reinforces a false assumption – that women who have taken a break from their careers have any reason to lack confidence. Yes, the idea of coming back to any high-pressure environment after a hiatus can be daunting. But the idea that skills may have atrophied – or that new and valuable skills haven’t developed in the interim – isn’t borne out by any data. Returnships reinforce the idea that returning women should feel hesitant – how could a special programme, rather than a full-time job, make them feel anything else? And not all returnships are successful. Most are in tacit competition for a limited number of roles. Some women will always lose out, and those women will take an even more fundamental knock to their confidence.

 

Returnships allow for soft-skill and on-the-job training”

… which any company that’s serious about its staff should be providing as a matter of course. The idea that workplace culture has shifted enough in just a few years to leave women completely adrift is asinine. The first few months of any job, not matter how experienced you are, is on-the-job training. Technology and platform training is a key part of any onboarding; turning down a strong and otherwise-qualified candidate just because they don’t know how to use a particular piece of software is not good recruitment strategy. The situation might be different in some front-end tech roles where development tools change rapidly (although these do not seem to be the roles that returnships target), but plenty of jobs will require quick learning – programmers often will need to learn an entirely new coding language at a new job. If you can do it in a full-paid, full-time job, what need is there for a returnship?

 

Returnships are for people who have taken an extended break, so they need an “on-ramp” to get back in”

An extended break in this context seems to mean two years or more. Whether you consider this length of gap as insurmountable without special help is up to you. All we can say is: we don’t. Sometimes people make serious lateral moves, out of one industry and into another, at similar levels and pay. Their technical skills, the specific knowledge, all that stuff will be essentially worthless. Their personal and interpersonal skills, drive, all the soft skills developed in their career thus far… will they just evaporate? We don’t think so. The dreaded gap on the CV is hardly an unexplainable absence – but returnships give businesses both an excuse to treat it like a valid reason for hesitancy, and focus that hesitancy on caregiving most of all. We don’t believe this is right. If a senior male executive had taken three years off for a non-caregiving reason, (travel, study, starting a small business in an entirely different area) we think they’d probably baulk at having to do a paid internship to come back in at roughly the same level they left at.

 

Returnship have a good chance of leading to a full time job at the end”

This one depends on what you consider a “good chance.” Goldman Sachs targets about 50% (so a coinflip, nice), others are higher. Our counter to that would simply be: we would prefer if these women just got jobs. Not a carrot on a string after six months’ work. (If you’re deriding this as unrealistic then just hold your horses, we’ll get to you in a minute).

 

Returnships are low-risk and so improve women’s chances of getting back into the workforce”

This is the first of our big issues. They aren’t low-risk for employees compared to genuine jobs, because we strongly believe that women who get back into the workforce are much more likely – more than 50% likely – to succeed rather than fail. Returnships are “low risk” for employers because, like an internship, it allows them to pick and choose candidates who are already working and then dismiss the ones they don’t like, not because the women coming back into the workforce present a genuine risk of doing a poor job. Fair enough, you might say, but internships are a bad solution to a difficult problem anyway – why are we codifying and normalising them at senior levels in regards to a single group? If returnships ever become mainstream, women who are absolutely confident in their abilities might find themselves wasting their time with them rather than risk being overlooked.

 

Returnships are getting women back into the workforce and improving diversity at senior levels”

This is our main problem, the one that informs all the others. Because returnships may get women back into work, and may be improving diversity at senior levels. We just think they’re a terrible way to go about these issues. They are, essentially, a sticking plaster over the issue – a low-risk way for businesses to achieve diversity quotas, while also being able to further cherry-pick candidates by making them compete for positions outside of simply hiring for a role. It’s a way of saying “we’re doing something” without taking on the thing that we think really needs doing – ignoring the prejudice against pregnancy and people who take extended breaks, and just giving women a fair shot at returning to the workforce at the same level they left at.

For those who think this is unrealistic or impossible, to use Juggle founder Romanie’s favourite quote: “it always seems impossible until it’s done.” High-level recruitment isn’t carried out by some objective, all-seeing algorithm. It’s done by people, people with their own biases and prejudices. Returnships imply that those prejudices were always justified, and the way forward is not to abandon them – or to find an entirely new way of hiring to prevent them being an issue in the first place (eg flexible working) – but to simply allow for them.

 

Returnships are technically for everyone, not just women”

Just in case you thought we’d let them off on a technicality. The only demographic that takes a relatively sudden and complete break in the middle of their careers is broadly “caregivers” but specifically women. Women who have children, women who care for children, women who care for other relatives like elderly parents. While returnships may technically be open to all, the actual numbers make this irrelevant. Returnships are for women (in fact the initial Goldman Sachs returnship drive focused solely on returning mothers – the most recent returnship “class photo” exclusively contains women).

 

At Juggle we do not believe that a few years off to look after someone lowers your ability to come back and do your job, only to get a job. Fix the latter, and returnships become redundant. We’d like to see a future where they’re irrelevant.

If you want your business to be part of that future, sign up to Juggle today.

If you’re a professional who needs autonomy over their schedule but does not need an on-ramp, create a Juggle profile.

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