NDT Blog

Tech Companies Help Women Get Back to Work

Posted on April 11, 2016

April 10, 2016
The Wall Street Journal
By Georgia Wells
Write to Georgia Wells at Georgia.Wells@wsj.com


PALO ALTO, Calif.—As tech firms compete in an escalating battle for talent, some are targeting what they consider an undervalued source: women returning to the workforce.

Companies including International Business Machines Corp. , Google parent Alphabet Inc. and PayPal Holdings Inc., as well as smaller startups, are using internships and other programs to help women get back to work and up to speed on the latest technology they need to be competitive in the workplace.

“The war for talent is so extreme that we’re seeing CEOs sitting around, saying, ‘Who have we not gone after? Maybe we need to find women who are at home with kids?’ ” says Valerie Frederickson, CEO of human-resource executive search firm Frederickson Pribula Li, who works with companies such as Facebook Inc. and Yahoo Inc.

Interning helped Lisa Stephens, a former IBM engineer, land a job after taking time off to raise her two sons for 20 years. To prepare for re-entering the workforce, she enrolled in an IT management Master’s program, and one of her sons taught her new coding languages.

“The whole idea of software had changed very much since I learned it in the ’80s,” Ms. Stephens says.

When she applied for jobs at tech companies, however, none called her back. So Ms. Stephens completed a paid internship for women returning to the workforce at email-marketing firm Return Path Inc. near Denver. After 14 weeks of coding exercises, she was hired full time as a software engineer at Return Path.

The tech industry has a shortage of qualified job candidates. The unemployment rate in Silicon Valley is less than 4%, lower than the California and national rates, according to the Silicon Valley Institute for Regional Studies.

“Every company today is dealing with how to bring in good talent,” says John Donahoe, chairman of the board of PayPal and former chief executive of eBay Inc. Hiring women returning to the workforce “is a source of competitive advantage.”

Companies seeking out women who have been out of the workplace for an extended time say they are easier to hire because there is less competition for them.

Amy Pressman, co-founder of customer-relationship management startup Medallia Inc., found it difficult to compete for job candidates during her company’s early days five years ago. She reached out to women after learning that one of her classmates from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business had a hard time finding work after taking a six-year hiatus to raise children.

“We made a conscious decision to focus on hiring people others were ignoring,” Ms. Pressman says.

Many women face hurdles in returning to work after stepping away for an extended period to raise children, among other things.

Nearly 90% attempt to resume their careers, but only 40% land full-time jobs, according to the Center for Talent Innovation, a nonprofit research organization focused on minority groups in the workplace. About 25% of women who attempt to resume their careers take part-time jobs, and roughly 10% become self-employed, the Center said.

The programs that companies such as Google have piloted to help women engineers return to work is in response to the skills gap the women may face. Due to the fast-changing nature of the tech industry, the gap can be greater than in other sectors.

“You can’t just take a 10-year pause, come back and be fully effective,” says Diane Flynn, chief marketing officer for startup accelerator GSVlabs, a portfolio company of investment firm Global Silicon Valley.

Last year, she started the firm’s Reboot Career Accelerator for Women, an eight-week program that teaches skills such as design thinking, shared calendars and personal branding. IBM provided initial funding, and Google and Facebook have invited Reboot’s students to visit their corporate campuses. Employees from Apple Inc. and LinkedIn Corp. have assisted with lessons.

Tech lags behind other industries in welcoming women back. In financial services, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and Morgan Stanley formed midcareer re-entry programs years ago. Consulting firm McKinsey & Co. contacts former female employees to see whether they are interested in returning.

By targeting this population, tech companies also are trying to fix a weakness in the industry: the under-representation of women. Tech companies have among the lowest participation of women of any sector, according to data from LeanIn.Org and McKinsey.

IBM’s initiative to hire women returning to work began in 2012 as it developed new businesses including artificial intelligence, cloud-computing, security and data analytics. The company was facing a shortage of candidates amid competition from a newer generation of tech companies.

“We realized we had an enormous opportunity to tap the supply of female talent,” says IBM human resources Vice President Lindsay-Rae McIntyre.

IBM created an alumni network to connect on social media with former employees who had stopped working. Dozens of women from the network have now rejoined IBM.

That network helped Mary Kolbenschlag, a computer program manager, return to work a year after she left IBM in 2014 to care for her husband who was severely injured in a bicycle accident.

In the summer of 2015, one of Ms. Kolbenschlag’s former IBM mentors called to offer her a role with a division developing its artificial intelligence and analytic programs that matched her prior work experience. She didn’t know his outreach was part of the initiative to win back women who had left IBM. “If my mentor hadn’t called me, I don’t think I would have returned to IBM,” Ms. Kolbenschlag says.

In September, IBM joined with Ms. Flynn’s Reboot Career Accelerator to help fund the curriculum. IBM also plans to customize its cloud platform to be used to connect freelancers in the Reboot program with potential tech clients—an option for women who need experience before accepting a full-time position.

Around the same time, the Society of Women Engineers and career-reentry firm iRelaunch asked IBM to create a 12-week paid internship for women returnees. Six interns are due to start this month; IBM is prepared to offer jobs to the interns, Ms. McIntyre says.