How to help women back into work

Goldman Sachs is looking to bring its returnship programme to England to help experienced women who have taken a career break back into banking. talks to Jackie Kinsey who ran a similar programme in IT.

The “war for talent” is hotting up and Goldman Sachs is looking to launch a UK version of its returnship programme for women who have taken career breaks.

The programme has been running for three years in the US and has already been extended to Singapore and Hong Kong.

The aim is to help women who had taken extended leave from their career to “on-ramp”. Comparable to an internship, the returnship programme is a ten-week preparation for returning to work and focuses on sharpening the skills women will need that may have changed significantly since their last experience as an employee. It addresses issues such as their lack of confidence due to the perception that “their extended absence from the workforce is an indication of reduced momentum or ability”.

Goldman Sachs is not the only company to look at ways to help women back into the workplace and increase the talent pool available to employers. In the UK, JP Morgan held a one-day workshop for women wanting to return to investment banking with Sapphire Partners in 2007 and global IT consultancy firm Thoughtworks piloted a Back to IT programme, sponsored by Equalitec, in 2007/8.

The Thoughtworks immersion programme was led by Jackie Kinsey, then HR director. She is keen to take it forward. She says she had become fed up with going to conferences where people bemoaned the lack of women in IT. She realised it was not just about the lack of women IT graduates but the fact that talented women who dropped out to have families found it nearly impossible to get back in. “The challenge with IT is the speed of change,” she says. “Programming languages can change overnight, although the core competencies are the same. You need to keep learning, but women with children often don’t have the quality time they need to do that.”

Universities and colleges did not offer the kind of practically focused course they needed. In addition to that women returners often lacked confidence. Jackie says Thoughtworks prides itself on innovation and is also very socially minded. She figured that if she could convince the company of the business case a programme aimed at women returners could be a good fit.


She says the way Thoughtworks functions is far from the traditional loner programmer model. All developers work in pairs and there is an emphasis on collaboration and communication. “It’s about talking to businesses and asking them what they want, doing a test and taking it back to the client and then building on it as you go along. It’s much more interactive than in the past when you would design and code a whole programme and then test it. The skills needed are different with a lot of emphasis on communication, networking and collaboration, skills that women are stereotypically good at,” says Jackie.

The Thoughtworks programme involved four weeks of training. The first two weeks were about building competencies. No coding was done. There were talks in the lunchbreak from guest speakers such as business analysts. One of the speakers was a senior developer who had a philosophy degree, showing that it was not so much about having an IT background, but about having a certain mindset which was open to learning new things and an interest in IT. There was then a four-week break over Christmas when the women did some coding and a final two weeks of training.

Jackie advertised for applicants in Metro. Sixty women and a couple of men applied. They were all put through a four-hour assessement test looking at their ability, logical thinking and visualisation skills. They were also interviewed. Everyone was given feedback. Twelve people were selected for the programme. Some had no experience in IT. Others had several years, but had had a long career break. Jackie says she would run the course differently if she had to do it again because a lot of people with no experience in programming did struggle. “If we had had pure ex-developers we would have been more successful,” she says. If they did it again, Jackie says she would tailor the second half of the programme more to specific roles such as business analysts.

“We did not do the programme in order to employ any of the people on the course,” says Jackie. “It was a bonus if we did. We just wanted to see if it would work.” At the end of the course, they asked people if they wanted to apply for jobs at Thoughtworks. Nine did. For some the programme showed them what they didn’t want to do, which Jackie says was useful in itself. Thoughtworks offered jobs to four women. Three joined; the other woman took up a job in Cambridge where she lived. Most of those who didn’t get jobs at Thoughtworks took up jobs in the technology sector after receiving career counselling through Equalitec.

Only one of the three who took up jobs with Thoughtworks is still there. Even so Jackie thinks regards the programme as a success. The programmer herself has delivered at least as much revenue as the course cost. Then there are the savings on recruitment and retention costs and the whole argument about having a more diverse staff.

Jackie says Thoughtworks, 25% of whose 1,800 worldwide staff are female, also needs to look to the future in terms of flexible working. She says more and more staff will want to work flexibly, including men and those caring for elderly parents.

The pilot of Back to IT was not immediately taken forward. Partly this was because Jackie went on maternity leave and has since changed role. There is still quite a bit of interest in it, including from recruiters who are worried about the skills shortage in some areas of the IT sector. Jackie says that one thing she has learnt is that such programmes need a passionate advocate at the centre who can see the benefits it offers to both employees and businesses. “Without a passionate advocate at the centre,” she says, “things tend not to happen.”

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