At Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Intel and Cisco, women made up less than 30 percent of employees in 2014. At the senior level, the gender gap is even wider.

To fix this 'leaky pipeline'--along with their notorious gender diversity problems--a host of tech companies are launching so-called returnships, internship-like programs that encourage the hiring of mid- to senior-level professionals who took extended time off to serve as a caregiver.

"As an industry, we can't afford to overlook women who have taken time away to raise families," says Steven Aldrich, chief product officer at GoDaddy, one of six companies partnering with nonprofit Path Forward to launch re-entry programs. "There are thousands of talented women who are more than capable of pursuing fulfilling careers, but have a hard time returning to work because of a resume gap. Companies, like GoDaddy, need to create opportunities for them."

But where do you start? Naturally, working with an outside partner like Path Forward can be an advantage. But if you're attempting to craft your own program from scratch, keep the following in mind.

Don't get caught up in the terminology.

This isn't exactly a new model of recruiting, says Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO of Boston-based career re-entry firm iRelaunch, which helps financial companies and tech firms initiate returnship programs. The internship-like experience is similar to a contract consulting role, special project, or temp job--any short term, non-binding arrangement, she adds.

Regardless of what you call it, formalize your program with goals and deadlines. Besides keeping you honest and goal oriented, a recurring program with plenty of milestones shows you're taking gender diversity seriously, which is particularly helpful these days, as so much attention is being given to the issue.

Adjust the structure to work for your company.
Companies that already hire contractors will find this part easy. When it comes to what you'll pay returning professionals, a degree of sensitivity is required. These aren't interns, after all. Consider offering stipends or pro-rated pay based on a similar full-time position.

You'll be able to evaluate the returning professional based on work samples instead of just an interview, so put them to work for a significant period, typically 10 to 18 weeks, depending on the company. If it's a good fit, that worker might be your next hire.

Define what type of worker you're looking for.

Even returning workers should fit your criteria and fill potential gaps at your company. The Path Forward programs are aimed at recruiting engineers, data analysts and marketers with five years of experience who have been out of work for at least two years for personal reasons. Some of the iRelaunch programs require as much as 10 years of experience.

IBM worked with iRelaunch to adopt a program earlier this year with very specific goals in mind. "It's important to expand our search for the best talent, especially in hot fields like security and data science," says Jennifer Howland, the executive director of IBM's program. "Some of the best talent has taken a career break and aren't sure how to get back in."

As a place to start for smaller businesses, Cohen suggests bringing on a single returning professional on a one-off basis using an internship-like experience. "We are doing that right now at iRelaunch," she says. "We are hiring a communications specialist as a re-entry intern for three months. If both parties are happy with the arrangement, the person will continue on in a permanent role."

Expect the unexpected.

While these returnships welcome both genders, they are often billed as a way to recruit women, who are more likely to take time off for personal reasons than men.

But Cohen says beware the stereotype that professionals returning to work after career breaks only want to work part time or with a lot of flexibility. As evidence, iRelaunch has collected data from over 4,500 people (93 percent of which are women) who have attended its 18 conferences to date. Seventy percent of them indicate they are interested in returning to work full-time, and many of the financial services firms' programs are designed to convert interns into full-time employees at the VP-level, according to Cohen.

Spread the word about your program.

Returnship programs might serve the company double by sending a positive message to younger workers. A study from the Manpower Group found that over 80 percent of millennials anticipate a career break at some point. And companies with a re-entry internship program, says Cohen,​"are signaling to their youngest employees that they want to be their employer of choice upon their return if they do decide to take a career break."

Published on: Aug 24, 2016