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A dynamic talent pool: the benefits of supporting women returners

Despite having the right experience, women returning to work after a career break often get overlooked for new roles. Here’s how employers can do more to attract and support them.

Last updated: 04 Mar 2020 5 min read

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According to job and community site Working Mums, 90% of people on caring-related career breaks are women.

Sadly, on returning to work, they face a ‘career break penalty’, with three in five forced to take a lower-skilled or lower-paid role, reducing their earnings by up to a third, according to research from PwC. Meanwhile, 29,000 will be underemployed – that is, working fewer hours than they’d prefer to.

Other women may struggle to find suitable employment because of unconscious bias in recruitment processes. Despite the desire of many firms to be more open and flexible in their working practices, if they don’t take action to attract applicants returning from a career break, strong candidates may find themselves screened out early on.

This is bad news all round. Julianne Miles, co-founder and CEO of the consultancy Women Returners, says firms that overlook this demographic “miss out on an interesting and dynamic talent pool”. So what can employers do to support women returning to the workplace?

Advertise roles with returners in mind

Companies need to take specific action to ensure ads for new roles appeal to those returning to work, and that applications from returners survive the initial screening process.

According to Dominie Moss, founder of recruitment specialist the Return Hub, the executive search agencies that are often employed to recruit higher-level staff may fail to identify individuals who are not already employed. And recruitment agencies may look for candidates who neatly fit certain criteria rather than thinking outside the box. “Neither of these methods are suitable if you’ve had a career break,” explains Moss.

It’s important to state clearly that applications are welcome from people returning to work, and for those responsible for screening CVs to look beyond recent experience. “CVs are sometimes screened out when applicants have a career gap,” explains Miles. “The person overseeing recruitment should know not to overlook these candidates.”

Review your interview process

While your firm may have a tried-and-tested interview process, it’s worth reviewing any questions and tasks that may put returners at a disadvantage. “For example, check that interview questions aren’t dependent on candidates citing examples of recent experience,” says Morris.

Clarity is also crucial at the interview stage. Having an open dialogue around flexibility will ensure candidates and employers fully understand what is being offered.

“CVs are sometimes screened out when applicants have a career gap. The person overseeing recruitment should know not to overlook these candidates”Julianne Miles, co-founder, Women Returners

“Employers need to design roles that are flexible, and be sure to highlight any limitations,” explains John O’Sullivan, co-founder of flexible recruitment specialist Ten2Two. “For example, you might want an employee to work 25 hours a week, while needing them in the office every day. Be clear if there are specific requirements.”

Ask returners what they want

While women returning from a career break may not request specific support, firms should consider measures that might help. Career coach Clara Wilcox, who runs social enterprise the Balance Collective, says it’s essential to ask returners what support they want.

“I find that employers often draft in experts like myself, yet the staff themselves aren’t actually asked what they need,” she explains.

Offering a mentor

Many returners benefit from being assigned a mentor or buddy to report to, although Morris says: “It’s a good idea to ensure that they have both a buddy and a mentor – a buddy of whom they can ask the day-to-day questions and a mentor to help navigate the culture.”

Sarah Green, a family solicitor at TLT, agrees. “I returned to work as a family lawyer after 12 months’ maternity leave last September. For me, having a mentor was invaluable – someone who had been there and knew exactly what I was going through.”

Be accommodating

Although those returning from a career break may have finished their caring duties, others may have specific responsibilities. For example, new mums may need a space to breastfeed. “Have a well-promoted breastfeeding room or space, and let women know you support them,” advises Wilcox.

For marketing manager Letitia Young, finding a firm that understood the demands on her as a parent was crucial when she returned to work after a break. “My firm, Cue Media in Birmingham, is brilliant,” she says. “They’ve let me choose my working hours to accommodate nursery and have been open to me working from home.”

Offer flexibility

Being open to altering an employee’s schedule to accommodate specific needs can help them work more effectively. “Establish what works best for them and the business,” says Wilcox, who advocates ‘duvet days’ to help parents recover after sleepless nights.

Morris adds: “One firm I worked with offered all employees – both returners and others – two hours of ‘free time’ a week. They could negotiate with other staff to ensure cover and use those hours as they wished – either to do the school run, or to go to the gym.”

Recognise value

Taking a career break doesn’t mean employees returning to work have missed out on valuable experience. In fact, career breaks may well result in the acquisition of new, crucial skills.

“Life transitions are the perfect training ground for soft skills,” says Riccarda Zezza, CEO of soft skills training company Life Based Value. “Our research shows that such transitions can improve skills like delegation, empathy, complex problem-solving and time management by up to 35%.”

By improving the recruitment process and encouraging more applications from women returners, companies are finally opening their doors to a wealth of talent. By offering greater flexibility, employers can go further to support these applicants.

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