‘Returnship programmes are underutilised’

A new study notes that hiring women on a career break is still abysmally low in India; and that back-to-work initiatives usually flounder for want of a right design structure

December 08, 2021 10:09 am | Updated 10:09 am IST

Mother working from home

Mother working from home

For all the buzz around returnship programmes for women, they remain an “underutilised trump card” in the war for talent — that is the main finding of a new study by Zinnov, a management consulting and strategy advisory firm.

The study notes that while over one lakh qualified women professionals in India have left the workforce in the last five years for various reasons, only two per cent of them have been reintegrated into it.

In a vast number of cases, there is no returnship programme for women; where they exist, only a handful of them are really effectual.

The study has made this inference after combing through 40 returnship programmes in India for their best practices as well as the challenges encountered in running them.

A majority of these programmes floundered in the area of having the right design structure to execute them. The absence of business alignment or a robust governance model has been the reason for a small number of these programmes fizzling out without ever having made any significant impact.

The few companies that have been able to institutionalise their returnship programmes effectively, and at scale, have continued to reap the benefits, says the report.

Back-to-work programmes for women have been in the spotlight during the pandemic, particularly because it has outlined the potential of remote work to widen the available talent pool.

The study points out that “to actualise these programmes, organisations need to change their hiring mindset and create quantifiable impacts by aligning these programmes to business requirements.”

First of all, organisations have to accord returnship programmes the status they deserve — the status of “a primary and sustainable channel of hiring” on par with other established channels, the study states.

Hiring women on a career break should be as automatic a choice as is something like campus recruitment. The report observes that “a returnship programme requires a sponsor/champion, clearly allocated resources, and a strong design to give it the same predictability and success as a campus hiring programme.”

The challenges

The study notes that returnship programmes have evolved over time from being smaller cohorts to being not just bigger and virtual, but also gender-agnostic cohorts. They started with less than 15 candidates and were limited to corporate functions. Later, they expanded to include tech roles and allow any working professional to apply for the programme. During the pandemic, these programmes further adapted to move online and relax the requirements, which is shortening the number of career break years and work experience required.

The study underlines that for the human resource team, getting the buy-in from the business side and the leadership for each cohort has been a challenge. Operational challenges include budget allotment and infrastructure.

Sourcing qualified candidates, uncertainty over continuous requirement and lack of focus on building an effective upskilling curriculum are among the other challenges faced by companies, says the report.

Around 17% women at the junior level enter a corporate career but only 3% of them make it to leadership positions. It is necessary for organisations to tap into this talent pool of experienced professionals to increase women’s representation in mid-senior levels.

Best practices

The report draws attention to a programme run by an organisation in the BFSI sector that hired women “across functions such as Operations, Technology, Finance and Risk, by establishing a clear work flexibility mandate and providing a supportive environment”. Some of the hires are at very senior levels, including CXO, the report points out.

In a release, Nivedita Nanjappa, Head of I&D Practice, Zinnov, says: “Our experience has proven that design and implementation of robust programmes need a 360-degree alignment driven by top leadership. Strong business alignment, a well-defined governance model, an effective curriculum and design parameters will enable scale.”

She adds, “There is enough data to show that women if integrated at the right time and equipped with the right tools, not only come back to being extremely productive, but also scale fast and become organisation builders in the long run.”

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