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One company has a novel solution for the 96 million women stuck on “career breaks”

A woman plays with her child in a fountain.
Reuters/Brendan McDermid
And now for something completely different.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Women who take time out of their careers often find themselves stuck outside the workforce when they’re ready to return—in some cases permanently. And it’s happening on a massive global scale. Companies may feel these women haven’t kept up with the current skills needed for the jobs they’re applying for, making them a harder sell. And there’s a stigma to having a resumé with a big hole in the middle.

This month telecom firm Vodafone, which operates in 26 countries, announced a global program to target the problem. It’s pledged to fill 10% of all its external management hires, and 500 sales and other jobs, with people who are currently on career breaks, adding up to about 1,000 jobs total over three years.

The scheme, called Reconnect, is open to men as well as women. But based on a year-long pilot involving 51 recruits, most new hires are expected to be women returning to the workplace after having children. The goal is to help meet Vodafone’s target of increasing the share of women in its managerial roles from 27% to 30% by 2020. (In 2015, it instituted a 16-week paid maternity leave policy globally and full-pay for 30 hour work weeks for the first six months back for new mothers.)

Taking time out of work, and working part-time, often after having children, is a major driver of the gender pay gap, which plagues women in the workforce globally. Burcu Erdur, who was part of the Vodafone pilot and is now a senior manager with the company in Turkey, said in a press release that she felt her three-year break “wiped clean all of [her] previous career achievements.”

Research conducted by KPMG and commissioned by Vodafone found that about 96 million skilled women aged between 30-54 were on career breaks worldwide. If they rejoined the workforce they could add £151 billion ($184 billion) per year in gross added value, the consultancy found.

Other companies have made similar efforts to recruit experienced women who’ve taken time off. Many involve so-called “returnships,” or short, paid placements for people who have taken breaks (paywall), often with a pathway to permanent jobs. But critics say the setup can push highly competent people into short-term, potentially lower-status roles reminiscent of internships, without the ultimate guarantee of a job.

Returnships can also prove suboptimal for women who have taken a noticeable amount of time away from work, but not enough to have lost skills. On average, people in the Vodafone pilot had spent three years outside the workforce, the company said. Sharon Doherty, a human resources director for the company, told the Financial Times (paywall) that though the company does offer training as part of the program, a lot of the recruits simply wanted “to get stuck into work.”

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