8 March 2022

How to open the door to women returning to work

By Julianne Miles

As the number of job vacancies across the UK reaches a 20-year high, and organisations are increasingly stating that diversity and inclusion is a priority, skilled and diverse candidates are still being shut out of opportunities.

Women wanting to return to work after taking long career breaks for caring reasons face multiple challenges. Widespread recruiter bias against candidates without recent experience too often directs their carefully crafted CVs straight to the ‘reject’ pile. The current job market has exacerbated this career break penalty. Many women returners are finding it impossible to secure even one interview, despite multiple applications for roles they are well qualified to do, as they compete against the mass of people made redundant during Covid or changing jobs in the Great Resignation.

The current hiring surge isn’t helping. Under pressure, recruiters say they don’t have time to target and support returners when their vacancies can more quickly be filled by other candidates who can ‘hit the ground running’. This is rapidly eroding the already fragile self-confidence of many talented women, whose career breaks may have already been extended for an unwanted two years by the pandemic.

Closing recruitment doors to women returners is a major issue for business, the economy and society. There are 1.4 million women who are economically inactive caring for their family, and many more mothers and carers are working small-scale well below their skills level because of their caring commitments.

The neglect of this female talent pool is particularly frustrating in high-growth STEM sectors, where returners could help to address skills shortages and persistently low levels of gender and ethnic diversity. We recently heard from a tech professional, whose six months maternity leave extended to two years due to lack of childcare during the pandemic, and she is now being told by recruiters that her skills are too out of date for her to secure a role at her previous level.

More positively, there are proven solutions to harness this wasted talent. Since their introduction into the UK in 2014, corporate returner programmes have provided a supported route back to suitable-level work for well over 1,000 women. The most common format is a ‘returnship’, a paid three to six-month professional placement, with 80-90% of participants typically securing ongoing roles.

Alternatives include supported hiring programmes, bringing returners directly into permanent roles, and retraining programmes where previous skills and experience are valued. With well structured returner programmes, flexible working options are discussed at the point of hire, and training, coaching and mentoring support is provided to set the returners up for success.

UK returner programmes grew rapidly year-on-year up to 2019, with over 100 employers participating in a variety of initiatives. This success was starting to transform the landscape for returners, with an ever-increasing range of opportunities around the country. Then the pandemic hit and the number of returner programmes halved in 2020. Despite a 2021 resurgence, it will take a concerted effort to regain the previous growth trajectory. This is particularly important at a time when returners are facing such challenges in mainstream recruitment, and are turning to returner programmes as a lifeline.

The announcement today that the UK government will support returners in STEM careers is a very positive step. Targeted initiatives can accelerate the growth of returner programmes, narrowing the gap between the high number of job opportunities on offer and the low number which are currently open to returners. Funding can also enable the creation of early-stage return to work support programmes, providing free training, mentoring and coaching to equip women returners with increased confidence, knowledge and skills to re-enter the job market.

We look forward to government, businesses and purpose-led organisations working together to tackle the career break penalty, helping to build a more inclusive and diverse post-pandemic workforce.

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Julianne Miles is the CEO of Women Returners, a consultancy, coaching and networking organisation which works with employers and career returners to enable professionals to return to work after an extended career break.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.