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While the media is brimming with advice about how to attract the youngest and brightest talent, companies are grappling with another, arguably more elusive recruiting challenge: finding experienced women to help bridge the long-standing corporate gender gap.

Although women now outpace men in undergraduate degrees and are nearly on par for graduate degrees, several prominent industries—such as tech, finance and healthcare—are still marked by a discrepancy in male to female leadership. Women hold almost 52 percent of professional-level jobs, but they represent only 14.6 percent of executive officers in the Fortune 500, only 12.4 percent of board directors in healthcare and only 12.4 percent of executive officers in financial services.

Now, a number of "career re-entry" programs are emerging with promise of alleviating the gap, offering resources for professionals who have taken a break from work. While there are re-entry programs for a variety of professionals and industries, the programs are an increasingly popular source for strong, capable women, according to Carol Fishman Cohen, co-founder and CEO of re-entry organization iRelaunch.

"There's a lot of activity in sectors where there aren't many women in middle and senior level positions. If I had to put a number on it, I would estimate [these programs] to be about 95 percent female," says Cohen. "These women are ready to re-engage with the workforce and they're excited about it because they've been away for a while—they're taking fewer maternity leaves, their spouses aren't moving for work and they're in a more settled time of their life."

Wanted: Financial and Legal Female Professionals

With a wave of enthusiastic and skilled women returning to the workforce, businesses are eager to bring on this new source of talent. Cohen points to financial services as one industry that has been quick to jump on the corporate re-entry train.

"Wealth managers don't want to stick a 25-year-old in front of their client to give them financial advice," Cohen explains. "They want someone who has had a few experiences managing finances personally and professionally."

Goldman Sachs, for example, launched its "returnship" program in 2008, receiving over 300 applications in the first year. The program lasts for ten weeks, during which participants are paid to re-immerse themselves in different departments and projects at Goldman Sachs. The company hires nearly half of the participants as full-time employees following the program.

Law firms are also catching onto the re-entry trend, says Caren Ulrich Stacey, founder of the OnRamp Fellowship, a program that connects seasoned lawyers with law firms looking to grow their ranks of talented women.

"They're looking for great lawyers, of course, but they're also looking for writers, communicators and problem solvers," Stacey explains. "These women bring a certain perspective and judgment that only comes with life experience. Some of them have served as elected officials, attended graduate school and sat on corporate boards during their time off."

The Benefits of Recruiting Through Re-Entry Programs

It's no secret that building a paid re-entry programs can be quite costly for employers. So what's the advantage of investing resources there instead of traditional recruiting channels?

Aside from improving gender diversity statistics, one of the biggest benefits to re-entry programs, says Cohen, is the reduced risk in hiring someone who has been out of work for a while.

"Re-entry programs are an opportunity to engage and evaluate candidates based on work samples, not just a resume and a quick round of interviews," she says. "It lowers the perceived risk of hiring someone who's been out of work for a while."

Going through a formal re-entry program also helps iron out the personal aspects of returning to work after a long hiatus, says Michelle Friedman, an executive coach who has guided participants in several corporate re-entry programs.

"I help women answer questions about restructuring their life, arranging child care and other issues that factor into returning to work," Friedman said. "Once we've established their goals, I coach my participants so they're able to walk into the door, get hired and plug into an organization just like any other new hire would."

How to Build a Successful Re-Entry Program

Career re-entry programs are a good way to tap into a new source of experienced, high-quality female talent, but building one from scratch can be tough for busy HR professionals, especially at smaller businesses.

A strong career re-entry program boils down to a few basic elements, says Friedman.

"First, you want to sit down and take a look at your leadership pipeline and see what level in the organization would be good to bring someone in from a re-entry program," he says. "You may not want to shake things up in the C-Suite, but other parts of the company may be a great fit."

Secondly, Friedman suggests looking for roles that would lend themselves well for temporary assignments, so you can evaluate a re-entry candidate without committing to hiring them full time.

Finally, it's crucial to have managers that buy into the concept of re-entry and are willing to create a supportive culture. "It's a steep learning curve," she says. "So you need that support and enthusiasm from inside the company."

Photo: Shutterstock