Whether it is at a corporate level or a blue-collar environment, women continue to face major issues in equitable integration and opportunities within the workforce [1, 2]. Bridging the gender gap, achieving fair wages, and ensuring more representative demographics at leadership levels are key. This International Women’s Day, LEAD-WiSE brings you the insights of Cynthia Hansen, Managing Director of the Innovation Foundation, and their work on these issues that underpin those very challenges.

[Annabell Cox] You do a lot of exciting projects and one of those is getting women back into the workforce and I’d love to hear a little bit more about this project you’re running. What are the reasons women are taking career breaks? Why do we have that gap?

[Cynthia Hansen] We’ve actually done a lot of looking at why women drop out, and there are a lot of different reasons, but I think for the most part it comes back to balancing all the different demands on you in your life. In a lot of cases, it’s caring. The statistics show hugely that it’s usually caring not just for kids, but also caring for elderly parents or for people with disabilities, other people in your life… And so caring is one of the biggest reasons, but I think it comes down to not just caring – it’s kind of a surface-level issue. It’s more about how you can balance the different demands of your time in a way that suits you. Ultimately most of the people we see, women in particular, are dropping out for that reason.

Is there a specific age group?

We find that a lot of women drop out at that age of say between roughly 25 and 45 when they have school-age kids. That’s not the only reason, but that is definitely a trend that we see throughout the world. We did a couple of pieces of research last year, they were specifically looking at why women drop out and the kind of hidden target audiences within that, because it’s not just women in general, but also we’re seeing that women at either the bottom end of the age range or at the top end of the age range tend to drop out at higher rates and women in mid and low skill demographics also tend to drop out. Women with caring responsibilities also drop out, but the trends are really across the board.

What kind of concrete actions could small and medium enterprises put in place in order to welcome women or avoid women dropping out within those age groups you’ve just mentioned?

I think for SMEs, it is particularly hard, because a lot of those provisions that bigger companies can put in place, are really expensive. So, if you look at the returnship programs that exist in a number of big companies, they’re geared toward bringing women back in after they have had a career break, but they’re focused mainly on white collar, educated, high skilled women and big companies will do that, because that’s a premium audience. They want those women back in and so they’ll create the glide path, they’ll create the programs to come back in with. But if you’re looking at low-skill, mid-skill women or if you’re looking at smaller organizations, they’re often just isn’t the ability or the will to invest there. 

So, I would say what SME’s can do is actually build this retention of women all the way in from the attraction and the hiring process to the onboarding, to the culture. Make sure that women feel welcomed, supported, that they see the role models at the top levels, that there is this idea from the beginning that it’s a ‘bringing your whole self to work’ situation. That [as an SME], you will work with them to figure out what suits them and to make sure that you can be flexible around the other needs in their life. SMEs actually have more ability to do that as a small organization than you do as a large organization. 

We’ve tried to model this in my own team. 

We are a separate legal entity from the Adecco Group. We’re clearly very embedded with the group, but we’re tiny. Right now, we’re seven people, at our biggest we’ve been 12. I’ve had people who worked part-time, who worked entirely remotely. We had people who needed to go and work remotely for a month or two because of family issues. For us, it doesn’t matter where you are, as long as you’re really embedded with the team, you’re connecting with people, you’re delivering what you’re supposed to. We had a colleague who went and worked for two months in Russia, another who worked for a month in Spain for family reasons. That’s absolutely fine. So as a small light company, you can make those provisions. You can weave it into your culture in a way that maybe is harder in a bigger established organization.

What are you doing in particular as the Innovation Foundation to accelerate that transition for women going back to work? What is that project about? 

So this is a project that is partway through our process – that thing that looks like a propeller, our process of Scan, Build, and Scale.

Scan is data-driven landscape scanning to help us understand: Who is falling out of the workforce and why, or who’s in danger of falling out? So we use that research and that methodology to go from women, which is [a huge dataset], all the way down to women who are in low-skill, mid-skill jobs who have had a career break of over a year, excluding maternity leave. So this is not just maternity leave, but really being out of work. We’re looking at the age range of roughly 35 to 45. That’s often where women will have caring responsibilities either for kids or for parents. Then, we’ve decided to do the place-based solution in Spain. This is where we get down to: what are we solving for and for whom?

Now, we go into Build, which is the second part of that propeller. That’s design, thinking based innovation, ideation. So, we’ve got this fantastic working group that has end users, women from that demographic in it plus organizations, companies, experts, HR people and we’re running through a design process. We’ll come out with a couple of solutions, they’ll take those solutions and it goes into Scale, which is an accelerator that actually builds them into products. 

We’ll build a little venture team around each one and then they will have six months and a chunk of money to go out and build an MVP – build that thing – whether it’s an app, a platform, a campaign – into a real solution. Then they come back and they pitch to us and if we believe that it’s got legs, then they go into another six months, another chunk of money. The aim is to build it up into something that is good enough and test it enough that one of the partner organizations will take it forward. So nothing will ever stay with us.

As the Foundation, we’re always building these things kind of as a flywheel that will go out into the world. So that’s what we’re working on right now. Specific to that idea of frontline workers, mid-skill, low-skill women coming back after a career break, what we found was that nobody was looking at that demographic, nobody was building programs or solutions for that demographic. [What we’ve created] is basically an incubator, but what makes it different is we’re not incubating external ideas or SMEs or startups or even entrepreneurs. It’s really whatever comes out of our process and then we build it with the right people.

What drove you to develop this specific idea? Why is that close to the Foundation and to yourself?

So the Foundation is really focused on anyone who is in an underserved population, who is in danger of falling out of work or falling out of work, the focus on women really came from statistics. We were seeing in the wake of the COVID pandemic that women dropped out at a much higher rate and women in precarious situations dropped out at an even higher rate, and as the pandemic started to tail off. They weren’t coming back, so we were really interested in why they were not coming back and why are they not coming back into certain industries that need people. Things like hospitality, health care, logistics, manufacturing, retail. And these are all industries that tend to employ a lot of women in that demographic and that need people now. So, we wanted to unpack that and figure out if we could find a solution that would help women who are vastly needed in the workforce to come back in and that would help those industries who need people.

What would be the benefit for small and medium enterprises to get their workforce back and to keep those women into the workforce?

I think a lot of it is about deeply understanding what the needs are of the workforce that you want to attract, and this is actually what we’re spending a lot of time in that working group on. So, this is really valuable, maybe even more valuable for SMEs than for large companies because SMEs need to choose their people really carefully and they need to retain them. So, if you can actually take the tools that we are developing to better understand what the needs are of the workforce that you want to attract then you’re going to be a more attractive employer. You’re going to be able to retain people, you’ll be able to develop them and that then allows you as an SME to grow, but to grow with the right people – and you’ll probably contribute a lot to your own brands, your company brands as being family friendly or women friendly in general. 

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