The Rise of the Returnship: A Key Gender Diversity Initiative

For various reasons ranging from welcoming a baby to taking time out to travel or becoming a caregiver to a family member, many people, particularly women, take extended time off from their jobs at some point. Career breaks are often necessary and for many unavoidable, yet so often when the time comes to return to work people are finding themselves with little option but to return to a lower paid position. Reasons such as the gap in employment, skills, and industry knowledge are often used as excuses for reasons why they are no longer able to work in the senior jobs they were in before their break. This cycle is very problematic for the tech industry because it’s sustaining not only the gender gap in tech but also the gender pay gap.


Returnships are a very real and positive solution to stopping career breaks from being a career hinderer. Through supportive mentoring they enable people who have had a break to catch up, ready to return to the level they were at previously, but their success is not well known amongst many companies, with recent pulse survey statistics suggesting 41% of companies are yet to evaluate the effectiveness of a programme for their hiring strategy.

Despite the slow uptake, companies and employers are discovering success through embracing returnship programmes in their business, and according to recent research there are around 100 programmes currently in place in businesses around the globe.

What is a returnship?

‘Return to work programmes’, ‘professional internships’ or ‘returner programmes’, companies may refer to them in different ways, but the basic definition of a returnship is a high level internship that enables someone who has undertaken a career break for whatever reason, to return to a senior level job. The duration of a returnship can be anywhere from 10 weeks to 6 months, depending on the structure of the programme, the company, as well as the confidence of the returner and their individual requirements. 

One of the biggest benefits of returnships for employers is the potential to access a previously untapped talent pool of highly skilled workers with a broad array of industry skills, as well as soft skills built up through previous years of experience, that could be hugely beneficial to the business.

The relationship between returnships and gender diversity in tech

For the returner the main advantage of a returnship programme is the opportunity to relaunch their career starting at the level they left on, without having to sacrifice time and money in the process. Research conducted by PWC suggests that upon returning to work, 3 out of 5 women return in lower-skilled positions than before, pinpointing the core reason why there’s a persistent gender gap in tech; because for many women a career break often means a career slump.

There’s also big advantages for companies passionate about increasing gender diversity, because the beauty of returnships is how they can help employers to streamline efforts to hire more women, especially in senior level positions. Returners have the desired skills and ability, they just need the opportunity to catch-up and regain confidence in those abilities.

We’ve summarised the key improvements returnships can help with in tech relating to gender diversity:

  • Improvement of the skills shortage in tech due to access to a previously untapped talent pool of highly skilled returners
  • Improvement to the imbalance of gender diversity at senior and management level in tech firms
  • Improvements to staff retention levels, especially women in tech
  • Improvements to the quest for equal pay for men and women in tech

The more returnships are seen to succeed through word of mouth, case studies, networking, and social media, the more evidence there will be to convince employers to put time and money into creating returnship programmes at their companies. Gender diversity is a problem plaguing the tech industry and with the increase in returnship programmes, there is real potential to see a direct correlation in the narrowing of the gender gap in the industry.