Editor's note: The following is a guest article from Roz Ho, VP and global head of software at HP.
The trend of women leaving the workforce mid-career to take on family obligations or other responsibilities is not new. However, the COVID-19 pandemic greatly exacerbated this exodus. In fact, nearly three million women left the U.S. workforce during the pandemic, as many have had to make tough choices between careers and families.
Although we might like to think most of these women will reenter the workforce post-pandemic, the reality of highly technical fields is that qualified women may be discouraged from returning due to the perception that their skills have become obsolete. Unless we address this issue head-on, the already stubborn gender gap in technical professions like IT will only continue to widen.
While it's true that some skills never go out of date (think writing or interpersonal skills), highly technical areas of expertise like data analytics and software application development are evolving at a lightning-fast pace. Even a year off the job can make for a daunting gap to address in an interview with a potential employer.
At the same time, now more than ever, companies are challenged with both attracting and retaining technical talent. Four million people quit their jobs in April 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
For particularly in-demand technical roles, a competitive job market is dramatically increasing the employee churn rate. In fact, 19% of business decision-makers in North America are concerned about the high software developer churn rate, according to a study commissioned by the Qt Company and Forrester Consulting.
While there are many programs aimed at supporting young girls to explore STEM careers and entry-level professionals in their quest to join the tech industry, we're missing an opportunity to recruit and support mid-career professional women, whether helping them transition into a role with a former employer or securing a new job.
The good news is that this is a solvable problem. We should explore ways to ensure that women — specifically technical women — have the necessary resources, tools, and opportunities to successfully transition back to work. Here are some recommendations to consider:
The rise of the 'returnship'
For women returning to work, "returnship" programs can be a critical tool to adjust back to life at work or try out new areas of expertise. Returnships, or paid, full-time internships for adults who have been out of the workforce, can be used to train individuals in specific skills that are highly relevant — and valuable — to the company.
In addition, where it makes sense, these programs can create opportunities for women with less traditional backgrounds to break into new professions.
For example, a woman with a math degree can explore a data analytics-focused returnship, as she likely has foundational math skills that are highly relevant and transferable to the analytics and insights field.
The bootcamp, reimagined
The lifespan of learned skills is decreasing, an important consideration for learning and development.
"The half-life of a learned skill is 5-years," according to researchers. In other words, every five years, a skill becomes about half as valuable as it was five years prior. After ten years, a skill becomes almost obsolete.
For women in technical work who rely on hard skills in the workplace, continuous learning is necessary to ensure they are staying ahead of this skills deficit. And skills can be "mismatched" if someone is out of a job for an extended period of time.
Bootcamp programs ensure 'returners' come back to work armed with the right knowledge and expertise to feel confident in their role. Companies can partner with local higher education institutions or with companies specializing in adult learning to offer these bootcamp programs or make certification courses more accessible for women looking to return to work (i.e., accelerated bootcamp programs for professionals who already have a grasp of the basics).
Attracting diversity through flexibility
Companies need to prioritize building a diverse talent pipeline by ensuring 'returners' are given equal professional opportunities and making this essential to recruiting and hiring strategies.
Flexibility is especially attractive for many women who have families or who simply want the flexibility to work outside the standard "9-5." Companies who offer this flexibility to potential recruits will win the talent war.
But support for 'returners' can't end once these individuals land a role. To retain top talent, companies must also ensure they are offering equal opportunities for growth and promotions. Learning and development is growing in popularity and necessity, according to data collected by the World Economic Forum, with 94% of business leaders reporting that they expect employees to pick up new skills on the job, a sharp uptick from 65% in 2018.
Likewise, ensuring women have mentors and role models who can advocate for their career growth is one way to retain — and attract — a diverse talent pool. Representation of women both in the rank-in-file and in leadership signals to women that an organization cares about, and prioritizes, diversity.