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This article appears in the March 2021 issue of Investment ExecutiveSubscribe to the print edition, read the digital edition or read the articles online.

Due to persistent socioeconomic forces, women leave or pause their careers to raise kids or take on caregiving responsibilities more often than men do. And when these professionals want to resume their careers, they may face several barriers to being re-hired.

These issues came to the forefront in 2020, when women stepped away from their jobs in both Canada and the U.S. on such a large scale that the phenomenon was coined the “she-cession.”

According to a report published by Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) in March, almost 100,000 women aged 20 and older have left the Canadian labour market entirely since February 2020, compared with fewer than 10,000 men over the same period.

“A sizable number of Canadian women are at risk of the skills atrophy that comes with long-term unemployment,” stated the report, COVID Further Clouded the Outlook for Canadian Women at Risk of Disruption, written by Dawn Desjardins and Carrie Freestone.

Women in the finance and insurance industries were the exception to this trend.

“From February to May 2020, we did see women’s participation in finance fall by about 1%, but then it rebounded significantly and actually increased,” said Freestone, an economist with RBC. “Women filled 62% of new positions that were created in finance and insurance from January 2020 to January 2021.”

Freestone said this success was probably due to the fact that many women in the financial sector were able to work from home during the pandemic, unlike front-line workers.

The data, however, do not reveal the level at which those new positions were filled, leaving one question open: Are so-called “returnees” getting back on the executive track?

According to Mary Ann Mendes, managing director of BMO Capital Markets and co-chair of Toronto-based Women in Capital Markets’ Return to Bay Street (RTBS) program, women re-entering the workforce often have trouble returning at the level they held prior to their absence. They also can face challenges breaking through the middle management level to assume more senior leadership positions.

Mendes encountered this herself when she began thinking of returning to the financial industry in 2012; she had left her role as an executive director in 2008 to raise her three sons. She tried to find a position worthy of her previous experience, but only found opportunities at a lower level. That experience ultimately led her to participate in the Back to Work program offered by the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.

Through Back to Work, Mendes learned of the RTBS program. After successfully applying to the RTBS and doing a job placement with BMO Capital Markets, she was hired full-time there in 2013.

Programs like Rotman’s and the RTBS link employers and returnees, and often provide specialized training, job placements and mentorships to help participants readjust to working.

Women returning after an absence “have already put in their time prior to leave, so the notion that they now need to pay their dues a second time needs to be addressed and dismissed by CEOs and senior leaders,” Mendes said.

Ensuring representation at senior levels is equally important. “If we have a high representation of women at the top, it inspires other women to advance and consider moving beyond the middle management level. I find many women get caught in middle management positions, and they may start to get discouraged and leave again,” Mendes said.

Women of colour and newcomers to Canada also may face structural barriers to re-entry and career growth, such as conscious and unconscious bias of employers when hiring, promoting and handing out plum assignments, Mendes added.

Return-to-work programs can help break down these barriers by encouraging a diverse applicant pool.

Past RTBS participant Lovelyn Toyo, vice-president of the enterprise initiatives group at RBC Capital Markets, decided to apply to the program in part because she saw how it helped newcomers to Canada.

Before taking a career break, Toyo was a team leader on a trading floor in Nigeria. “I’d just had my third child and around the same time I realized that my second son was in need of extra resources for his development, so I decided to take some time off,” Toyo said. She and her family moved to Canada to “find a nice balance for every member of our family to thrive career-wise, family-wise and education-wise.”

Toyo found breaking into Bay Street’s capital markets sector difficult, however, because employers prioritized Canadian experience.

“When I came across this program, I wasn’t sure I was the kind of candidate [the RTBS] was aimed at. But meeting the alumni — [including] one who also happens to be an immigrant from an African nation who moved here a decade ago — gave me the confidence I needed [to apply],” Toyo said.

Being in the program “also gave me the chance to be a role model to other women — and other Black women, in my case specifically,” Toyo added. “There’s power in believing you can achieve something because you can see that someone who looks like you has done something you’re aspiring to do. That power cannot be underestimated.”

Roberta Carano, director of business development, global equity derivatives with Bank of Nova Scotia, said participating in the RTBS program meant she never had to explain or apologize for time away spent raising her children.

“I could focus on my strengths, my abilities, what I could bring to the firm and what kind of challenge I’d be up for in the opportunities that were offered to me,” said Carano.

Lack of confidence can be a challenge for returnees once they’re hired, said Mendes, because they can encounter difficulties in learning the company culture and gauging what’s required to be successful.

“One way around that is having both a mentor in the organization and another outside the organization,” Mendes said. She said she benefited from having someone who could advocate for her and make sure she understood how her firm operated after her return to work.

Returnees also may lack confidence in their technology competence or their understanding of the regulatory environment, said Ann Felske-Jackman, principal and head of financial advisor talent acquisition with Edward Jones in Mississauga, Ont. In these instances, she recommends candidates take courses to upgrade their skills.

Edward Jones began a return-to-work program a few years ago to welcome back financial advisors who had left the firm. Felske-Jackman doesn’t view people who have taken a leave of absence any differently than other candidates: “Those career breaks or changes don’t discount the experience of a candidate and what they can bring to the table.”

In fact, Felske-Jackman said, firms can benefit from a returnee’s life experience — whether they volunteered during that time, started a business or gained other experience that would help them to better connect with clients.

Toyo expressed gratitude for leaders and allies who recognize the benefits of hiring returnees.

“Many times, newcomers and women come up against doors or ceilings that we don’t always have the power to open or break through,” Toyo said. “Sometimes, it just takes people with influence to change rules, inhibit how rules are being written, start a conversation or launch an initiative.”

Applications for the 2021 RTBS program close on March 29.