Back to work

Back to work

Twenty women who have been out of the workplace for three years or more have just finished an innovative returners programme run by Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Michelle Fullerton, the bank’s head of diversity for Europe and emerging markets, says in just two weeks the women’s aspirations have undergone a radical transformation.

The aim of the Returning Talent programme is to address the pipeline problem many organisations face in attracting and retaining middle ranking women.

“We want to attract the best candidates,” says Fullerton. “One thing we noticed is that while we have a good number of women at lower levels, as you go up and up the organisation there are less and less women.”

The bank has done a lot of work to address its internal pipeline and to develop women leaders, but Fullerton says: “We can keep fishing at the bottom and expect women to progress, but it will take a long time for them to get to the top. So we wanted to look at how we could parachute some female talent in.”

One of the issues they confronted was that many of the experienced women had taken time out to have children so they decided to target those who might be looking to get back into the workplace. Working with Mumsnet, they advertised the three-week returners programme which is aimed at women who are ready for senior level roles and had taken at least three years out of the workplace. “These women needed someone to say that their skills and talent were still valued and to give them some support to get back into the workplace,” says Fullerton.

She adds that timing wise the programme, which finished last week, was perfect because post 2008 so many people in the banking industry have had to take time out and are looking to come back so the women would not be so unusual.

Wide net
They cast the net as wide as possible, but deliberately kept the application deadline to just two weeks as Fullerton knew they would be inundated.

Indeed, over 90 women applied for the 20 spaces and she says every one of them was of a high calibre, although some simply didn’t provide enough information on their application. The bank’s recruitment team sifted through the applications and assessed them as if the women were applying for a job. Fullerton offered feedback to all who had not been accepted.

Not all had experience in the finance sector, but all had transferable skills. The programme consisted of three one day sessions – 10am-4pm – spread over two weeks. At least one woman had been out of the workplace for seven years.

The first day was aimed at taking stock of where they were now, what their experience was and giving them a lot of support on how they could get back into the workplace. It included a panel of women managers, including a single mother, who spoke about how they managed their work life balance. It also covered changes in the industry over the last five years. “Literally everything regarding regulations has changed,” says Fullerton, “which may mean it is a good time for these women to come back into the industry since everyone is in the same position.”

The last day included sessions with members of the recruitment and leadership teams who gave the women individuals tips about their cvs and passed on advice.

Fullerton says the transformation in the women over the two weeks was noticeable. “On day one they wanted to work part time and were saying they needed to leave at a certain time. They were still very much in the mums’ mindset. By day three they had seen how IT advances had made it easier to work flexibly and were talking about maybe working four days with one day working from home or working till 5pm and then logging on after the children were in bed. They recognised that they deserved a career and they realised that they had missed work,” she states.

As a follow-up, Bank of America Merrill Lynch have offered to support them for a year by offering them a space to meet up every quarter to catch up and network. They have also set up a kind of alumni LinkedIn group so the women can stay in touch and give each other support. Recruiters at the bank are keeping in touch with the women and will contact them if suitable vacancies arise. Fullerton says the bank is definitely interested in doing it again.

Sponsorship
The returners programme is just one of a number of initiatives Bank of America Merrill Lynch is aiming at women and parents in general. Another, launched in November, is a sponsorship programme whereby managing directors and senior directors – mainly men – sponsor 40 more junior women. The programme lasts 18 months. “It has been working really well,” says Fullerton. “Women can see that their career is not plateauing and that we want them to develop and the sponsors gain a lot from the relationship. They may, for instance, have a wife who is a stay at home mother and by pairing up with a working mum they can understand better the issues the women are facing. It’s a good cross pollination.”

Other ongoing initiatives include maternity coaching for pregnant and new mums and workshops for new fathers, plus extended paternity leave since the bank recognises dads’ roles are changing. The bank also has an active parents and carers network. “It gives parents the opportunity within work to have a chat about the kind of things they are missing out on talking about in the school playground,” says Fullerton.

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