A decade of supporting returners

Women Returners’ annual conference this year celebrates 10 years of helping people who have taken breaks find their way back to their career.

Returner Programme


This year marks the 10th anniversary of an organisation that has helped change attitudes towards career returners. Women Returners – now Career Returners – started up in 2014 with the aim of making career breaks a valued part of a life-time career. Since then it has worked with over 170 employers and helped over 3,000 returners get back to their careers. It has also worked with the Government on a returner toolkit and now offers a free returner community which will be enhanced this year with the addition of a free tech community platform and app so returners can connect more easily with each other.

The idea for Women Returners started to hatch a decade before 2014. Twenty years ago, co-founder Julianne Miles was on a career break from a career in corporate strategy and marketing. She felt confused about her options and isolated. Eventually she opted to retrain as a chartered psychologist, working from home. She heard from many friends in a similar position who didn’t want to make a career transition and met with lots of rejection when they applied for jobs in their sector. At the time there were skills shortages and employers said they wanted to attract more women. “No-one was talking about the problem or offering solutions,” Miles told the eighth Women Returners annual conference yesterday. “I thought someone should do something. By late 2013 I realised that person was me,” she said.

Hazel Little, Deputy CEO of Career Returners, joined the organisation in 2016 after a career break from HR. She felt stuck at the time, paralysed by fear and a lack of confidence. Then she found her way to Career Returners. Despite all the pioneering work they have done, both Miles and Little realise there is a lot more to do to normalise career breaks, address recruitment biases and build returners’ confidence.

Driving equality and boosting the economy

The conference kicked off with a message from Maria Caulfield, Minister for Women. She spoke of the Government’s support for returners and the extension of its free childcare scheme and how the Government has worked with Career Returners on a STEM returners pilot in the Midlands and North. She said supporting returners was not just about helping people to return to their carers, but about boosting the economy and driving equality.

The returner panel is a popular feature of the conference and always serves to inspire and motivate. Indeed several of the panel were conference attendees last year and all had found their way back to work through returnships.

They included Victoria Grantham, a lawyer at DAC Beachcroft LLP who took a 15-year career break, although she worked for her husband’s business during this time. She explored options like teaching and tried applying for jobs, but found she was not on a level playing field. Eventually she got a returnship position. She spoke of the battle to rebuild her confidence – she took getting an interview as a confidence boost even if she didn’t get the job.

Dagma Cummings came to the Women Returners conference last year looking for motivation. She found it very inspiring. She had lost her job in financial services in 2012 and found it difficult to get back. So she started working at Harrods, where she was in charge of two European brands. She also started a cake business and used the skills she gained at Harrods to sell her cakes and to keep her confidence up. When Covid hit, though, her business suffered and she redoubled her efforts to get back to financial services. She recently started a job at Starling Bank after doing a returnship. At first she felt like an imposter, but another returner told her to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and that being comfortable takes time. “It takes time to ease yourself back in again,” she said.

Other speakers included Luliana Udangiu, now at EDF, who also attended the conference last year. She is a business analyst and had become seriously ill after travelling to Uganda. She spoke of the impact on her self esteem of being out of work and how Covid had helped her get a foot back in the door because employers became more open to people’s different circumstances. For her the biggest challenges she faced were internal ones. “I never thought I would be able to come back and be the person I was before,” she said.

Fifi Crowley had been working in an investment bank and decided to take a two-year break to set up an art gallery. That was just before Covid and her two-year break extended to five years. During that time she had twins. She too came to the Women Returners conference last year and is now working for DC Thomson. She spoke of how she would be asked detailed questions about her former job in the City at interviews. “They meant well and they were giving me a chance, but they were treating me as if I was doing the job I did six years ago yesterday,” she said.

Subiya Muneer’s job as a software developer was made redundant during Covid. She had just come back from maternity leave and was in the middle of a divorce. She spoke of how her eight year old daughter had been very supportive of her attempts to get back to work – she now works for Deloitte Ireland – and how being in work had drastically changed her life and made her financially independent.

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