After a 10-year career break to take care of her two young daughters, Rachael Grieve recalls jumping back into the job market in 2019 and finding nothing but despair. The yawning gap in her resumé left her with few opportunities that suited her ideal schedule and experience. After a failed interview for an office manager position, she was left despondent. “I went home and burst into tears, thinking, that’s it, I’m done,” says Grieve, who is based in London. “It just felt like all these doors were closed.”

“I still remember that desperation and fear, especially after interviews that destroy your confidence like that, which was humiliating at the same time. You find yourself stuck as to where to go.”

Soon after that, a chance conversation with a friend who still worked at her previous employer, financial services group Nomura, led to Grieve returning, and ultimately, setting up the company’s Returners Program in 2019. Open to people who’ve taken a career break of 18 months or more, the program offers 12 weeks of induction, training and coaching, after which time candidates can apply for positions at the company. Nine out of the ten returners who have gone through the program are now working there full-time.

The initiative forms part of Nomura’s plans to increase female representation in a sector that is notorious for being male dominated. A statement on its website says it has reached 31 percent female employees against a target of 33 percent, with 14 percent of those working at a senior level, compared with a goal of 19 percent. 

Return programs like Nomura’s could also help counteract the disproportionate withdrawal of women from the workforce during the pandemic, as women generally became the default parent during school and daycare closures. As of February 2021, women leaving their jobs accounted for the majority of the decrease in U.S. labor force participation. Fewer women in work also worsens the gender pay gap, which stands at around 15 percent in the U.S. The Harvard Business Review has described return programs, which it dubs “returnships,” as one of the best ways to get women back into the workforce.

Tackling the gender equality issue isn’t easy, admits Grieve, who’s now Nomura’s global head of learning and development for technology. That’s why she feels strongly about leading this program so it becomes a standard part of Nomura’s diversity, equality and inclusion strategy.

“Our chief information officer from day one was 100 percent supportive,” Grieve says. “This made a massive difference, to be given the platform and sponsorship to do it. I also made sure all senior managers understood the caliber of the candidates we were getting through it.” 

Shereen Peeroo Finney

One of those candidates was Shereen Peeroo Finney, a London-based cybersecurity architect who joined Nomura in 2019 after taking two years away from work to rethink her career. While she had already gained new skills through training, she’d lost some confidence. But the support provided in such a structured program, including resumé advice, practice interviews, external mentoring and a 90-day plan, plus a cohort to bond with, makes the difference between a returner thriving and struggling, Peeroo Finney says. “The extra support does get you up to speed a lot quicker.” 

Tailoring both the recruitment and onboarding program to accommodate and even embrace career breaks — which employers have traditionally viewed as a flaw, rather than a sign of healthy work-life balance — gave Zandra Otubamowo the boost she needed. The four-year gap on her resume to take care of her two young children led to a string of rejections, and led her to believe, when she began job hunting in 2020, that she may have to move backwards in her career to get started again.

Like Grieve, a friend told Otubamowo about the Return to Work program at Meta, formerly known as Facebook. The program launched in 2018 to offer six months of training and mentorship to people who have been away from work for at least two years. If they’re a fit, the program can lead to a full-time job. Like Nomura, Meta hopes its initiative will contribute to its goal of doubling its number of female employees globally by 2026. (Currently 36.7 percent of Meta’s 118,000 employees are women).

Washington-based Otubamowo got a spot in Meta’s program, and in September 2020 took on a role as a technical program manager.

“The support in the program was like being put into a bubble to protect us, which you don’t get when you just come in normally,” she says. “From my manager, to my mentor and my buddy, there were so many people that were put in place for me to make sure I succeed. You’re coming into a space where things are moving so quickly, but in the program people help you move at your pace.” 

“I don’t think I could have survived otherwise,” Otubamowo continues. “For me, it made a lot of difference in terms of transitioning slowly back into the workplace. We need more women to feel comfortable coming back into the workforce and not feel like they have to take a paycut or fall behind — that you are going to be given what you deserve.”