Article | 13 min read

Returnship: why mothers can’t break down the corporate door

By Chelsea Larsson

Last updated November 17, 2020

Imagine this scenario: a woman goes into an interview with over 20 years of relevant tech experience. Not one to rest on her two decades of work laurels, she also took HTML and Javascript classes at night, redesigned the website for her kid’s kindergarten (pro bono), volunteer managed her neighborhood’s annual fundraiser, and tutored high school students struggling with math and coding.

Even though the woman is overqualified for the almost entry-level job, the interviewer appears dubious. “Wow, great skills. But tell me about your most recent paid accomplishments.”

You see, the woman has been out of the traditional workforce for five years taking care of her family. And now, no one seems to want her.

Stephanie’s story

When Stephanie W. tried to return to the workforce after ten years of caring for her children, she hit a new and unpleasant wall in her professional life. After years of working contract and full-time positions with big brands like Sony, VMware, and Cisco, she was suddenly treated as an inexperienced hiring risk, not as the experienced professional she knew herself to be.


Stephanie W., a marketing specialist and mother of two found success using a returnship program to re-enter the workforce.

“I was told I wasn’t recent, I wasn’t relevant,” said Stephanie, a marketing communications strategist in the Bay Area with two children under the age of 12. “I interviewed with a lot of major Fortune 500 organizations in the technology industry. I was trying to get back into the game where I left off and it was really difficult. I just kept getting rejected left and right.”

Not to be deterred, Stephanie increased efforts to offset the employment gap with new work experience. “Every time they gave me a reason for their objection, I basically said, ‘OK, I’ll show you’. I volunteered for nonprofits, I volunteered for my kid’s school, I took all the skill sets I had in marketing and parlayed them into the nonprofit space through pro bono marketing consultation.” She also retooled in areas where employers claimed she wasn’t competitive.

But the pro bono work and extra training failed to outshine the gap in her resume. “One woman actually made me go through every pro bono client on my resume. After outlining my successes with each client, her comment was, ‘When was the last time you got a W2?’”

Like many smart, experienced mothers trying to return to work, Stephanie found that she was suddenly defined by her lack of continuous paid employment rather than on her professional successes. Dejected and confused, she eventually found a returnship program through Path Forward that helps caregivers return to work.

Talented women are being kept out of the workforce

The belief often is:

According to data from the Council of Economic Advisers, once a person has been out of work for between 27 and 52 weeks, the odds of getting hired drop from 30 percent to 12 percent—and bottom out at a depressing 9 percent after a year.

To be fair, it’s not just mothers that struggle to get past the now-shut corporate door. Caregivers for elderly parents or a sick relative experience similar frustration. And with more companies encouraging lengthy paternity leaves, men may someday find themselves behind the closed door, too.

To be fair, it’s not just mothers that struggle to get past the now-shut corporate door. Caregivers for elderly parents or a sick relative experience similar frustration.

But it continues to be mothers that face a heavier stigma. At least 60 percent of mothers looking to return full-time experience that closed door. And it’s not for a lack of trying. According to research by the Center for Talent Innovation, which interviewed thousands of women who “off-ramped” in the 2000s, 93 percent of the women who off-ramped wanted to return to their careers. Unfortunately, only 74 percent of these women were able to find employment and only 40 percent received full-time positions at professional jobs. 24 percent had to take part-time jobs and 9 percent tried self-employment.

Women leaving the workforce to raise families is not a new concept. In fact, 43 percent of “highly qualified” women leave work for some time to care for children. But women returning after years “off” is a newer concept and one that businesses (and many people) have yet to embrace as normal. ”When I left the workforce 16 years ago, this was not a conversation going on within businesses. You either immediately came back to work [after paid or unpaid maternity leave] or you didn’t come back at all,” says Wendy Padua, who recently took an internship at a tech company in San Francisco.

For long-term unemployed mothers, like Padua, the hiring odds sound scary. In the U.S., the window for finding a job is usually four months. After that, many people give up. But many mothers want to stay with their children longer than that—at an average of 2.5 years. So, they off-ramp, usually with the hope that they’ll be able to return. And that’s where the challenge begins.

Why is it so hard to get hired?

From a business perspective, there is a wariness to hire someone with an employment gap. “People in recruiting don’t like mysteries. We’re bringing someone onto the team whom employees need to depend on. For many recruiters, a gap is a red flag,” says Lauren Mirkoff-Taft, a Zendesk recruiter working on placing mothers in the tech company. Even though 84 percent of hiring managers are more understanding of post-recession employment gaps, a candidate with a gap

Even if recruiters are sympathetic to the caregiving gap, automated resume scanners show no mercy. Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) are automated resume filters that comb resumes for specific keywords and employment dates. If your resume doesn’t match a specific set of requirements, it gets kicked out. In fact, companies depend on their ATS to filter out 75 percent of candidates. So, not only do candidates have to write a compelling resume that explains the gap, they have to get past a robot.

Sometimes the craziest ideas, are the simplest. For businesses to be more inclusive, they need to rethink how they address the gap. Instead of treating it as a red flag, it could be a point of interest in learning more about the candidate’s diverse experience.

Money ≠ success

There is a deep-seated correlation between a person’s competence and their salary. But when mothers are working pro bono, it’s hard to show worth without the metrics of salary and title bumps. This unfair correlation negates the mothers’ experiences and successes.

Although sixty percent of hiring managers said volunteering increases the candidate’s marketability, it is not seen as a valid replacement for paid work. Doray Briskman, a marketing specialist at Demandbase, experienced this in countless interviews over the two years she was looking for a job. In one interview, the hiring manager asked Briskman to explain the gap in her resume. Briskman answered that she took time off to raise her family. “I explained that I work at the schools, in my community, and offer my expertise volunteering in different areas. The hiring manager said, ‘So, you weren’t working.’ I tried to explain that while I didn’t get paid, I worked over 20 hours a week to plan events. I had deadlines, people who depended on me, and repercussions if I didn’t succeed. Her response was to shrug and say, ‘If you say so.’ That was it. I didn’t interview again for about three months after that. I took a break.”

“Her response was to shrug and say, ‘If you say so.’ That was it. I didn’t interview again for about three months after that. I took a break.”
– Doray Briskman

Rather than basing value on salary, some candidates are urging businesses to find proven value in a person’s long-term patterns of behavior.

“Some people are doers, some people are planners, some people like to be on both sides of that equation. But if you’re looking at somebody who’s demonstrated a path of continually being a leader and taking the initiative over a period of time, that pattern should be relevant in unpaid work too,” says Padua. “That’s not accidental when it’s a repeated pattern of leadership.”

Lose the motherhood penalty

As if that isn’t enough to overcome, candidates who are mothers This stigma was explored in a telling study by Cornell University researchers, “Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty?” in the American Journal of Sociology. In the study, participants looked at two sets of applications that were nearly identical except for the parental status. Participants then rated the candidate on supposed ability, salary, a likelihood of being promoted, and commitment levels.

Researchers found that mothers got a raw deal. Candidates who were mothers were judged as 10 percent less competent and 15 percent less committed than non-mother applicants. They also received less money—7.4 percent less than non-mothers, which amounted to $11,000 in the experiment. Climbing the career ladder was hindered too as participants were less likely to recommend mothers for management or promotions. Most importantly, their job prospects were severely limited. Participants recommended hiring 84 percent of the non-mothers and only 47 percent of the mothers. A judgment based solely on the fact that they have children not on their prior experience, education, or HR recommendations which were similar across the two applicants.

Take a moment to exhale or inhale a nearby cupcake.

This bias is undeniably awful, discriminatory, unfair, and untrue. Mothers are successful professionals. Sheryl Sandberg, J.K. Rowling, and gads of working mom role models prove every day that it’s possible to raise families and achieve professional success. Also, balancing “family devotion” and “work devotion” is not limited to mothers. It is a struggle every employee deals with in their search for work-life balance.

Instead of using parental status to predict a candidate’s commitment, the Cornell study recommends looking at the job’s importance in the candidate’s life. Researchers found that “If work commitment is measured by the importance people attach to their work identities, no difference is found in commitment between mothers and non-mothers.”

Overcoming the odds

For mothers looking to work, personal network recommendations can be the ticket into a full-time position. Spreading the message to friends, family, and former colleagues increases the chance of an employment connection. That was the case for Jilanna Wilson, a mother of four who was out of the workforce for ten years. In her first month of looking for work, she was employed as a Design and Research Coordinator after a neighbor, and recruiter, personally recommended her to the company. Wilson knows that she was lucky in this connection but still learned a few things along the way.

Jilanna Wilson, a design and research coordinator and mother of four, believes in the power of networking to help mothers find job opportunities.

“It’s important to just be vulnerable and ask people around you to look at your resume. Ask them, ‘What do you see that I’m good at?’ or, ‘What have you seen over this period of time that I could really highlight?” said Wilson. “These are things that you don’t think about because you lose your sense of confidence and a sense of those work skills. These people might see skills that you forgot that you had.”

In addition, Wilson received the best career advice of her life during her job search. “One woman who interviewed me for an entry level position ended the interview by saying, ‘I want to offer you this job but you are overqualified for this position.’ She knew I was also interviewing at a company for a more advanced role and encouraged me to reach higher, ‘With your experience, whatever job you take should not be entry-level and you should definitely seek a higher salaried position that you are qualified for.”

This was an eye-opening conversation for Wilson, “It was terrifying for me to even think about going back, but only because it had been so long and I didn’t feel qualified anymore. Then, I thought about all the things I’d accomplished volunteering and my work before that and I remembered that I have serious skills.”

Advocating for a competitive salary is particularly important to returning mothers because the system is not set up in their favor. Most returning mothers accept 16 percent less pay on average. Not a surprising statistic since mothers make only 73 cents for every dollar paid to fathers—an even greater disparity than the 79 cents per dollar most women make compared to men in the US. But, as Wilson shows, it’s worth it to try.

Keeping your foot in the door

Another way to get your foot in the door is to leave it there, By working freelance or part-time while raising children, mothers can stay abreast to industry trends and build their professional network.

“I joined a magazine staff completely run by mothers. It was unpaid, so there was nothing in that for me except for the experience of it,” said Suzanne Barnecut, a writer at Zendesk. “It was a chance to sit around a table with other women who were mothers and discuss things like editorial style, writing, photography, and design.”


Suzanne Barnecut, a senior level content marketing manager and mother of one, kept one foot in the door by freelancing while caring for her daughter.

Barnecut took nearly two years off to raise her daughter, but also used that time to pursue a career change. She had built her career as a technical writer and instructional designer, but wanted to move into marketing. “I knew that I’d return to the workplace sooner than later, but my hope was that I would return into a different role and be able to make a career shift.” In the end, Barnecut was able to leverage the writing portfolio she built during her time at home to land a job doing what she wanted.

Working part-time isn’t always an option. And in those cases, mothers have to be persuasive with the experience they have. This is when a mentor or a personal board of directors can be invaluable in helping mothers shape their stories and prepare for interviews. Think of them like a career coach, but you can pay them in wine and friendship. For Stephanie, her connection to supportive and successful women kept her motivated. After a particularly rough interview, Stephanie said “One of my mentors who’s an executive in Silicon Valley could see I was upset and told me ‘Okay, let it all out,’ so I did. I cried and let it all out and then she said, ‘Now you can stop and start a whole new day tomorrow. Because if you dwell on negativity you’re going to take that into your interviews.’ She helped me with thought switching and with getting back on track.”