Women, Returning in Force

Women who took hiatuses are returning to work in record numbers. Will companies place them in the strong roles?

A new family. A desire to travel. A need for change. Women quit their jobs for a variety of reasons, taking years—if not decades—off to focus on other important aspects of their lives. But that doesn’t mean they’ve put their careers on hold for good, as many women leave the workforce with the full intention of returning down the line.

Now new federal data shows they’re doing so in droves. The number of older women going back to work has seen a sharp uptick over the past year, growing more than other populations. And with organizations facing a global talent crunch, this is only good news for those in need of new recruits, while also creating a challenge: putting this returning workforce in the right jobs.

Experts say for leaders to leverage this talent in an increasingly ambiguous economy, they’ll need to be much more deliberate and structured in how they bring them on board. “It’s not necessarily new strategies and tactics,” says Shannon Hassler, a principal with Korn Ferry’s Advancing Women Worldwide team. “But it’s another level of intentionality that companies need to have to make sure these women aren’t falling through the cracks.”

As of February, women over 55 years old accounted for more than 17 million workers, around a 4% uptick from this time last year, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. The share of working men over 55, on the other hand, only rose by about 3% over the past year, while the number of employed women across all age groups increased by less than 2%. What’s more, the latest Labor Department statistics show that the share of older women in the workforce has reached a record high in a decade: last month, women over age 55 made up 34.3% of the US labor force; 10 years ago, that rate was 32.4%.

But according to Hassler, while there are exceptions, many women re-entering the labor pool often aren't returning to top executive positions. Instead, she says, they are more likely an individual contributor or middle manager, and have to work their way back up to upper management and the C-suite—and have fewer years than their younger coworkers to make that climb. “Even with women in the pipeline who haven’t taken a hiatus, there is a significant disconnect with them and critical pathway roles, relationships, and experiences,” Hassler says. “Those issues are compounded when you’re talking about women coming back to the workplace.”

To shift that outcome, experts say leaders should ramp up efforts to expose those returning workers to the right people and operational roles. Updating them to new technology and integrating them into the new culture will be important, too.

“The ideal approach starts with some sharp analysis about what has changed and what hasn’t,” says Melissa Swift, a senior client partner and leader of Korn Ferry’s Digital Advisory practice. “Being up-front and clear about what has changed in terms of workplace norms can be hugely helpful. Don’t make them guess about ‘the unwritten rules.’”

Whatever the issues, the return of this workforce couldn’t be coming at a better time for many companies, who are fighting to fill roles in a record tight labor market. For many firms, their experience will be invaluable, experts say. “Older women can be terrific at skills like navigating the matrix, which organizations still desperately need and often struggle to find in the current crop of talent,” says Swift.