As Canada’s population ages, employers have become increasingly aware of the need to develop and retain highly-skilled women to ward off the impending skills shortage. Yet women continue to bear the majority of the responsibility for childcare and eldercare, putting them at a distinct disadvantage in their career development.

“We heard anecdotally through our MBA alumni that there was a whole cohort of women who were talented and experienced, but had taken time out from their careers – whether it be for motherhood, elder care, or other health issues – but when they were ready to come back to their careers, they were finding it difficult,” says Geeta Sheker, director of the Initiative for Women in Business at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Business.

In 2008, with the backing of TD Bank, the school launched Back to Work, a three-month program designed to ease the transition for women returning to the workplace after an extended leave.

“The objective is to provide women with the skills they need to advance their careers,” explains Sheker. “A lot of it is about refreshing their business basics, like emerging trends in technology, improving their networking skills, and career strategies around leadership and self-awareness.”

It’s one of a handful of programs emerging across the country. Women in Capital Markets (WCM) and BMO Capital Markets have created an award to help women re-establish careers after an extended absence. The BMO Women in Capital Markets Return to Bay Street Award provides a paid, three-month internship with BMO Capital Markets, $5,000 towards a continuing education program, enrolement in WCM’s mentoring program, and one-year WCM membership.

Three years ago, the University of Western Ontario’s Ivey School of Business launched ReConnect, in partnership with CIBC. The week-long seminar program offers bridging skills to professional women job-seekers looking to return to their careers after an extended leave. It includes sessions on business trends, networking and social networking, interview skills, and building resumes that best portray time out of the workforce.

“We’re attempting to reach people at this odd inflection point,” says Gavin Brown, executive director of executive development at Ivey. “They’ve made the decision to get back into their careers, to start taking charge, but their confidence is at a low point. This program is a first step to help them build that confidence and reconnect with professional networks.”

Brown says a secondary part of the program includes creating strategic partnerships with employers.

“It’s important for employers to think about the impact of maternity leave and their responsibility for retaining people who go on leave,” explains Brown. “This is a critical piece of the puzzle, in terms of addressing the labour shortage. And yet, it’s amazing how inefficient the talent-management process is in reality.”

Preparing for leave

1. Build as much experience as you can prior to exiting your career. A report by TD Bank published in 2010 found “women incur far less financial penalty the more experience they build before exiting, irrespective of the length of time they ultimately remain out of the workforce.”

2. As you prepare to exit, plan your re-entry. “People often don’t think about how they’re going to keep their career options open when they go on leave,” says Brown at Ivey. “But as you make the decision to step out of the workforce for a period of time, ask yourself how you’re going to stay engaged. […] It’s a conscious decision if you choose not to.”

3. Maintain your professional networks. Although women on maternity leave or other types of leave often cite a huge circle of networks, they often sever relationships with business networks. “Maintain professional memberships, continue to build your resume through volunteering, and be very strategic about keeping contact with three to five professional networks that you will continue to maintain relationships with monthly while on leave,” advises Sheker at Rotman.

4. Don’t sell yourself short. “Women should go for the job they want and deserve,” says Michelle Bennett, coordinator at ReConnect. “Often it’s about building their confidence so they can go back into the position they had previously and feel comfortable about it.”

5. But be willing to compromise. “Sometimes it’s necessary to re-enter at a lower level than when you left,” says Sheker at Rotman. “But if women take a lower position initially — which may allow for an easier transition – they must be sure the company will allow for rapid career progression.”