Shashi Dokania was, at best, a long-shot candidate.
After taking a four-year break from work to raise her two sons, Dokania tried to land a job. A former tax analyst, she discovered a passion for software development after taking her older son to a Silicon Valley coding boot camp.
She spent two years teaching herself to code and enrolled in the intensive, three-month Hack Reactor coding program. Yet, with no prior professional tech experience and a years-long gap in her resume, the 70 job applications she sent out to tech companies were ignored or rejected.
"It is indeed very disheartening, because I knew I was capable of doing things," said Dokania, 35, who moved to Fremont, California, in 2013 from her native India. "It's just that I wanted somebody to believe that."
Dokania found an opportunity after two months of searching, becoming one of the first nine women in the US to join the payments company's new Recharge program. The paid internship, which kicked off in February, helps women with computing backgrounds relaunch their careers after they've left the workforce for several years.
The program offers a small but noteworthy glimpse at the ways employers in America are starting to change. Return-to-work programs such as Recharge, The Second Shift and iRelaunch are becoming more popular in tech and other areas after mostly existing in the finance industry. It's part of a broader shift in workplace flexibility, with tech giants such as Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Microsoft and PayPal extending their paid parental leave policies last year.
These efforts offer a promising opportunity in tech, which has failed to attract and retain women despite years of effort. The percentage of women in computing-related US jobs has been on a steady decline for the past 25 years, with women now making up just one in four of those positions, according to the nonprofit National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT).
"Programs like this become another tangible way companies can show they're willing to do something and not just say something," said Tami Forman, executive director of nonprofit Path Forward, which develops mid-career internship programs and helped create Recharge. "Because I do think there is some cynicism, and rightly so, about companies' commitments to this issue."
MJ Austin found a job at eBay, PayPal's former parent company, 12 years ago, after taking three years off to raise her twin daughters. She said having to integrate back into work after being away for so long was isolating and difficult.
Austin eventually joined a women in technology group within the company and helped PayPal create Recharge, hoping other women would have more support returning to work and, therefore, be more likely to stay.
The 20-week program provides resume and LinkedIn workshops, training on giving short presentations and job experience. PayPal has already implemented Dokania's code to help monitor merchants' accounts.
There's also a six-week Recharge program in India, which included 100 women.
PayPal plans to open up Recharge to more groups, hoping to make the company more diverse and provide opportunities to experienced workers, such as veterans, who are often overlooked. eBay and PayPal last year reported that women accounted for only 29 percent of their leadership positions and 24 percent of their tech jobs.
After partnering with PayPal and a handful of companies in Colorado, data solutions provider Return Path is planning to significantly expand its return-to-work programs this year, looking to create 75 to 100 internship openings at up to 20 companies in both Silicon Valley and New York.
"The tech community is trying hard," Austin said. "It is very important for tech companies to focus on it and see how they can best help women stay in the workforce."
Needing a cultural shift
The problem with extended-leave and flexible programs like job-sharing or sabbaticals is that few employees take advantage of them even if they're available.
Consulting firm McKinsey & Co. surveyed nearly 30,000 employees and found that just 12 percent of them actually participate in flexibility programs other than telecommuting. When asked why, 90 percent of employees responded that they believed taking extended family leave will hurt their positions at work.
Return-to-work programs are helping change that stigma by showing employees that people can be successful in their careers after leaving for several years, said Catherine Ashcraft, senior research scientist for NCWIT. Such a shift in thinking could benefit men looking for added flexibility, too, so they can also raise their families, care for an elderly parent or manage other responsibilities, she added.
Forman said her organization talks to companies about ensuring that flexibility programs don't only exist on the books. Having more managers and supervisors take more time off will send a message to others that it's OK to spend time away from work, she said.
"There's a rising tide of quality conversation in tech, and companies are taking some initial steps to be bolder," Lareina Yee, a McKinsey partner who leads the company's research on women in US businesses, said about growing the number of women in tech. "It doesn't get changed in a year or two."
As the first Recharge program is coming to an end, the nine participants this week are starting to discuss potential full-time jobs at PayPal. Dokania is hoping to stay at the company.
"I'm sure there are many women like me," she said, "who have taken a break and who want to come back to work."