Creating a ripple effect for women returners

Julianne Miles, winner of this year’s Working Mums Champion award, talks to Mandy Garner about her work for Women Returners.

A black woman speaking at a work meeting


In just five years Julianne Miles and her team at Women Returners have played a huge role in changing the narrative for people who have taken a career break.

That achievement won Julianne this year’s Working Mums Champion Award at the Top Employer Awards.

The judges said they were highly impressed by her energy and commitment and by the huge influence she has had on practice and policy towards returners generally, paving the way for the kind of initiatives that are flourishing now.

Julianne co-founded Women Returners in 2012 with Katerina Gould (who stepped back from leadership of the business after a few years). Both had been supporting women who had taken career breaks to get back to work for many years.

A Chartered Psychologist, Julianne had become increasingly frustrated about the lack of opportunities and support available to professional women returning to work after a long career break.  Even highly qualified and experienced returners faced many challenges.

Together with a loss of professional confidence, they rarely made it through traditional recruitment routes because of their CV gap, unless they found a role through their professional and personal networks.

This had led to a huge waste of female talent. “Women Returners started both with a desire to change society and a recognition that there was a strong business case for companies to access this diverse talent pool,” says Julianne.

Returner community

Women Returners started by supporting individuals, creating a free online returner community, the Women Returners Professional Network, which now numbers over 4,500 women.

Julianne and Katerina had been watching developments in the US, where returnships were first started in the financial sector, and recognised that these provided a supportive bridge between organisations and returning professionals.

In 2014, they set up Women Returners for Employers to bring returner programmes into the UK, focusing on the strong business and societal case and the availability of an untapped talent pool.

The timing worked well as there was increasing company interest in increasing diversity and a pick-up of recruitment following the 2008 recession. Several journalists got on board and through media coverage Women Returners raised awareness and understanding and started to build the UK returnship market.

Things really started to take off in 2015 as more and more forward-thinking UK employers launched returner programmes and saw just how impressive the talent pool is. The idea of returner programmes started to become reality.

From the early days, Women Returners was very keen that returner initiatives should not be focused just on financial services. Julianne quickly looked to get other sectors on board, partnering in early 2015 on a programme with Thames Tideway.

“I was keen to show that a returnship could work in a construction project building a sewer under the Thames, to demonstrate that it could work in any sector,” says Julianne.

Gender pay gap

She adds that the business case for returner initiatives has only grown stronger since then, with the increasing focus on addressing the gender pay gap and the more widespread understanding of the benefits of diversity of both gender and experience.

“There is so much evidence about the positive effects of diversity on innovation and productivity. There seems to be a real momentum now within UK businesses to take action and bringing in returners is increasingly being recognised a piece of the solution. The timing worked out well for us,” states Julianne.

Although the majority of people Women Returners works with are women who have taken a career break to look after children, Julianne is keen to emphasise that returner programmes attract candidates with a wide variety of reasons for taking a break, including caring for elderly relatives, ill-health and relocation.

Women Returners offers consulting expertise on tailoring returner programmes to work for the returners and the organisation. They also provide their Career Returners Coaching Programme for returners and training for returner interviewers and line managers.

They have developed different models for returner programmes, including returnships and supported hiring (bringing returners into permanent roles) and they partner with employers to adapt a programme to their needs.

“Some employers and returners like returnships – they like the idea of a supportive cohort and providing a soft landing; others prefer direct hire, which usually works well for SMEs,” says Julianne.

“We want to create structures that work for the smallest firm up to a large international corporate.”

Julianne says she understands the challenges faced by employers in integrating people with a long career gap. She does not criticise employers for hiring few returners in the past, saying it is important to work with them to create solutions for the future.

New developments

Women Returners is rapidly evolving and moving into new industries and sectors. For instance, they have just launched programmes in the media sector with Sky and the BBC and in the public sector expect to see more local council programmes after the success of their returnship with Enfield Council.

Julianne is continually coming up with new programme models. Women Returners recently developed and ran a cross-company finance returnship pilot in Scotland, funded by the Scottish government, which brought 29 women into twelve financial services companies.

The programme was very successful, with a 78% conversion rate into permanent roles after the three-month programme.

They have also just launched a cross-company return to law programme in Manchester and Leeds. Julianne has been wanting to kick-start returnships in the legal sector for some time so, when the Government’s returner fund was launched, she applied for and secured funding for a programme for the North of England.

The bidding process was very competitive and the programme was one of only five to get funding.

Law Returners is bringing together up to 20 law firms, from small boutique firms to international firms, for a six-month programme in 2019.

The programme is in partnership with the Law Society who helped introduce Women Returners to interested law firms and to access lawyers on career break.

The Government funding means that the individual firms don’t have to bear the set-up costs, reducing the barriers to getting a returner programme off the ground.

Women Returners has also worked with the Government Equalities Offices Returners Unit to co-produce, with Timewise, a best practice guide for employers running returner programmes (available on Gov.UK). They have also co-written a toolkit for returners which will be published shortly.

The future

Julianne is excited about the future for Women Returners as momentum continues to build. Women Returners has expanded outside the UK, into Ireland, where they are working with clients such as Fidelity International and Accenture.

They have also co-hosted an event in Switzerland with JP Morgan. “The challenge of reintegrating people on career break back into the workforce at suitable levels is an issue all around the world,” says Julianne.

“In many other countries, there is also an untapped talent pool of qualified people, mainly women, who have taken a career break and who struggle to get back to work.”

For Women Returners, the Midlands and the North of England, together with targeted markets in the rest of Europe are a key focus for the future. Julianne is also interested in exploring specialised retraining programmes to get more returners into areas like technology where there are key skills gaps.

Women Returners now has a fast-growing team, based around England, in Scotland and in Ireland. Julianne admits that there are challenges to growing a small business with big ambitions, but she sees strong potential for growth.

She says the most important ingredient for a successful returner initiative is that employers see it as a means of accessing a high-calibre talent pool and position it as such throughout the organisation, getting support from both top and middle management.

Having a flexible work culture is a major advantage for returner employers but is not essential, as flexible working is not a priority for all returners.

Nevertheless, flexibility is an important topic that Women Returners raises in terms of broadening the talent pool and effectively supporting returners who have other external commitments to achieve a sustainable work-life balance.

Ripple effect

Numbers on returner programmes may be small, but Julianne says they can have a “ripple effect”, particularly in more traditional sectors, or in technical or operational areas where there are few women at mid to senior management level.

A returner programme can act as a catalyst for wider structural changes – for instance, raising the topic of offering flexibility at point of hire or considering a less ‘tick-box’ approach to recruitment.

“Returnships are more about quality than quantity,” says Julianne, “and we find that they can start to open the minds of hiring managers and raise questions about the limitations of certain hiring processes.”

She adds that if we are all going to be working for 50 years there will be more and more people wanting or needing to take career breaks at some point during their working life.

“This is very much tied to the future of work agenda,” she says. “There are a combination of factors causing career breaks.

The conversation started with enabling mothers with small children to return to work, but it is now much broader and it will continue to evolve as people become less worried about the effect of taking breaks on their career.”

Julianne adds: “When we started five years ago no-one was talking about career returners. This topic was not on the radar of employers or the Government.

Faced with limited opportunities, thousands of talented and experienced women had written themselves off and lost confidence in picking up their careers. Now we have hundreds of inspiring success stories of women (and men) who have returned stronger than ever.

“They are our pioneers and are becoming mentors for new groups of returners. Many companies are now running returner programmes regularly and integrating them into their annual recruitment processes, and there is a returners unit in the Government Equalities Office.

There is still a long way to go, but the conversation has definitely changed and we have established strong foundations on which to build.”

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