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Returnships: Creating a bridge back to work for women who want to re-enter the world of work after a career pause – Katerina Gould, Co-founder of Women Returners


Katerina Gould is Co-founder of Women Returners, a specialist organisation that enables professional women to return to work after an extended (two year plus) career break. Women Returners works with businesses to create routes back to corporate roles for returners and runs a network for returning professionals, providing support, information and coaching. Katerina retrained as an Executive Coach during an eight year career break, building on her earlier career, which included corporate management and entrepreneurial roles and a Harvard MBA.

Katerina Gould
Katerina Gould

“…I can be moved to tears by the emails we receive from women who have been helped to get back to work through both returnships and the support and information Women Returners has provided…” 

The leaking talent pipeline: A conundrum with a natural solution

For some years I’ve been puzzled by a conundrum:

  • There is a vast number of qualified, talented, experienced women who face immense hurdles in getting back to their corporate careers after a longer-than-maternity career break; there are no clear routes back to a senior role, particularly with a large ‘CV gap’ and diminished professional self-confidence.
  • At the same time businesses are recognising the business case for diversity and are under pressure, in the wake of the Davies Review Report and work by the 30% Club, to appoint more women to their boards, but they don’t have sufficient women in senior management roles to fill the necessary pipeline.

It seemed to me and my Women Returners Co-founder, Julianne Miles, that the natural solution was for the companies to open their doors to the women they had allowed to slip away during career ‘pinch points’ and tap back into the potential that these skilled women represent. Thus our company expanded from its original focus of providing support to returners and embarked on a mission to bring returnships to the UK.

What do we mean by a ‘returnship’?

Returnships, which originated at Goldman Sachs in the US, provide participants with paid assignments of commercial value to a business for a contracted short-term period (typically 10-12 weeks), with the possibility of ongoing employment at the end.

Mentoring, coaching and technical skills updating are often included. The returnship creates a bridge back to work, enabling the returner to refresh her skills and to transition rapidly into a senior role. The employer benefits from a talented resource focused on a specific business issue as well as a low-risk way to evaluate the potential of the returner as a future employee.

For any sector – not just banking

I believe that these programmes can work in pretty much any sector. Two elements are needed: an organisation to provide suitable paid assignments and support; and qualified and experienced women who are motivated to return to their careers. I encounter such women all the time: at the school gates, at alumni events and at the many workshops that Women Returners runs for returners.

And we’ve been encouraged to hear from companies in many diverse sectors (construction, engineering, professional services, energy, FMCG [fast moving consumer goods], telecoms) that they are interested in hiring these women. For sectors which have not traditionally attracted women, returnship programmes are particularly appealing as they enable the employers to demonstrate clearly their commitment to women and their careers.

Case study: Thames Tideway Tunnel

Thames Tideway Tunnel logo

Currently we are working with Thames Tideway Tunnel, which has taken on seven returners, in areas ranging from operations management to stakeholder communication. These women, who have all had extended career breaks, are contributing to the construction project at a crucial time in its development.

Women Returners has co-designed the programme and is delivering the workshop and coaching support. In the coming months, we will also be announcing further programmes in the property and legal sectors as well as an innovative cross-company / cross-sector programme.

Returnships – not the complete solution, but an exciting contribution

I realise that returnship programmes are not the single or complete solution to enabling women to have fulfilling corporate careers. Other initiatives such as agile or dynamic working, sponsorship, mentoring and flexible job design all have a part to play. But I’m excited to be making a contribution to improving the way women can combine their careers with the rest of their lives.

I can be moved to tears by the emails we receive from women who have been helped to get back to work through both returnships and the support and information Women Returners has provided.

As we are living longer and healthier lives and the retirement age is later, I would like to live in a society where it is perfectly acceptable during a career lasting 50 years, to be able to pause it and get back on track without great difficulty. After all, if you are returning to work in your late 40s or early 50s, you could have another 20 productive years of your working life ahead of you. And I would like this to be possible for all, not only for women.


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