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In the last three years one organisation has been at the forefront of encouraging employers to recognise the tremendous potential of women who have taken a career break to look after their families.
Women Returners was founded by Julianne Miles [pictured] and Katerina Gould, both of whom know from personal experience the challenges faced by women who are trying to get back into the workplace. This autumn it launches its first conference to bring female professionals who are looking to go back to work face to face with employers who are interested in hiring them and women who have already successfully returned.
The aim is to bring women together so they can form like-minded support groups and feel more confident about making that career comeback.
Speakers include Women’s Hour’s Jane Garvey and Brenda Trenowden, Global Chair of the 30% Club. There will also be face to face workshops with coaches and employers and the chance to hear real life stories from those who have already returned to work.
It’s part of Women Returners ongoing work to raise the profile of an experienced talent pool who many employers are missing out on.
The organisation was set up to work with employers to provide tailored returner programmes. These include sector-specific updates and sessions on confidence building. They can range from paid internships, often on a flexible basis, to supported hiring initiatives. In 2014 there were three returner programmes; in 2015 there were nine [seven of whom ran another programme this year]; and in 2016 there were 23.
It’s not only the number of programmes that are increasing, the sectors covered is expanding all the time as is the geographical location. Moreover, Women Returners is getting quite a lot of media coverage which helps to promote the benefits of hiring women who have had a career break more broadly.
“When we started in 2014 we knew it would work and now we have more and more evidence that it does and in different sectors,” says Julianne, Women Returners’ Director.
She says there has been an increase in approaches from the public sector in the last few months, particularly health and local government who are keen to test the waters. While the early adopters tended to be in the finance sector, other sectors such as technology and the media have shown growing interest in returners.
The organisation has recently opened a small office in Scotland as a result of working with corporates who have offices there. Julianne says Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has been supportive of returner initiatives and she is optimistic about developments there and in other areas such as the North and Midlands.
“Large companies have chosen to pilot initiatives in the south east and London and are now considering spreading geographically and into different business units,” says Julianne. “We expect that to continue.”
There has also been interest globally, from countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Japan. The US and India were the original pioneers of returner initiatives, but Julianne says progress in the UK has been faster due to a combination of efforts to increase gender diversity in the boardroom and a realisation by employers that they need to address the issue of diversity further down the pipeline.
“There is a skills gap issue and employers are realising that this is a group they have overlooked,” says Julianne.
The last few years have not always been smooth sailing, she admits. “It’s been a steep learning curve, but now we have a good established process so everything is much smoother and we can anticipate potential pitfalls. All our programmes are tailored to the specific organisation we are working with and its culture.”
One of the key barriers is the idea that it might be risky to target people who have taken a career break. However, the more case studies Women Returners have that showcase women who have returned and are succeeding the more this perception of risk diminishes.
She adds that Brexit has had an impact on some sectors who are adopting a cautious approach amid the current uncertainty, but says that others are continuing to forge ahead. Several new programmes have been announced since the referendum and Julianne says she hopes Women Returners have created “sufficient momentum”. “There is a feeling among many organisations that they can’t put everything on hold indefinitely and there is still a big issue about skills gaps,” says Julianne.
Women Returners is hoping to build on that momentum with the conference on 14th November, but Julianne recognises that there is still a lot of work to do to get the message through to employers up and down the country.
Given that returner programmes are very competitive and that their number is still small, although growing, she says that for the majority of women the best option remains to exploit their own networks. “It’s about taking stepping stones back to work. You need to be patient and persistent,” she says. “And you need to believe in yourself. It can feel quite isolating – which is why we set up our conference – to bring women together to discuss the broader issues in an atmosphere of possibility and positivity. We want to get the message across to employers, big and small, that these women have a lot to offer. We want to change the conversation.” That conversation is already starting to change, thanks in no small part to the work of Women Returners.
*For more information about the Women Returners conference, click here.