How attitudes to returners are changing

Women Returners’ annual conference highlighted how things are changing for returners and aimed to inspire them to get back to their careers.

Coffee cup in front of a computer with welcome back written on a post it note


While returner programmes used to be dominated by parents who had taken a career break to raise young children, the last few years have seen more and more people applying for other reasons such as unretirement, breaks for health issues such as Long Covid or caring for elderly relatives or teenaged children with mental health problems, according to the organisation Women Returners. 

It held its annual conference in early May, which was attended by over 300 people online. Seventy five per cent had 10 or more years of work experience before their break and 70% had either postgraduate degrees or professional qualifications, showing the calibre of talent on offer.

A nine-year journey

CEO Julianne Miles opened the event by talking about developments over the nine years since she co-founded Women Returners. She spoke about her own four-year career break from a corporate career and how she struggled to get back to work, eventually qualifying as a chartered psychologist. In this role she encountered many women like her who were trying to get back into fulfilling work. Julianne was interested in the structural barriers to their return. The only women she knew at the time who had successfully returned had done so through personal or professional contacts. Women Returners was launched in 2014 with a mission to remove the career break penalty and to normalise career breaks. “I wanted to create a solution, not just complain about the problems,” said Julianne. The organisation focused on employers, returners and government. The biggest breakthrough came when they imported returner programmes from the US and developed a support programme and coaching to help people back to work.

Since then Women Returners has worked with 170 employers, has 8,000 people in its professional network and has supported people into over 1,000 jobs. It has extended its programmes outside London and the south east, worked with the Scottish and UK governments, developed cross company models for those with smaller hiring needs or fewer resources and written best practice guidelines for returner programmes which are on the government’s website as well as helped returners become an entrenched part of diversity commitments in industry pledges, such as the women in finance charter.

Current trends

Julianne says the success of the returner programmes have also been a catalyst for broader conversations about career breaks and returners and that more and more employers are open to people without recent work experience.  

Returner programmes are divided into three groups – returnships of three to six months typically with additional support and the likelihood of a permanent job at the end; supported hiring, a more direct route back, but with additional support and coaching; and retraining programmes for those looking to change sectors. A typical returner on a Women Returners programme has had a break of between 12 and 18 months, but some have had much longer breaks and there is no upper limit.

Julianne says existing programmes are scaling up and that more pilot programmes are being launched. Conversion rates to permanent jobs are rising too and are currently between 80 and 100%. Employers are also more open to flexible working since the pandemic and some are operating rolling programmes through the year rather than at particular times during the year in a bid to normalise the hiring of people with career breaks.

There are still challenges for returners, she added, but despite the recruitment slowdown skills gaps remain and diversity is still important, with returners offering fresh thinking. “There is a sense that returners can bring something different to a team. People who have lived a bit can bring a different dynamic,” said Julianne, adding that returners also have to do their bit by being persistent, creating their own lucky breaks and never writing themselves off.

The two-day Back to Your Future conference, sponsored by FDM Group, J.P. Morgan, Lloyds Banking Group, Moody’s and Workday, was the usual mix of practical workshops, networking and panel discussions with employers. Alexander Trinity, Global Diversity Sourcing Specialist at Moody’s who manages their RE-IGNITE Return to Work programme, said Moody’s really value their programmes and have recently expanded them from the US, UK and Canada to India. He stated: “Globally we have a big focus on recruiting women at senior levels. Returners have good skills and experiences.”

Returner experiences

A returner panel, chaired by radio presenter and podcaster Jane Garvey, showed the diversity of experiences returners bring. Salaha Ahmed is project coordinator for the Scottish government. She had an 18-year break and thought that she wouldn’t get back to a professional career as she was over 50. The mother of five had been with RBS as a business consultant and Scottish Water as a customer intelligence manager before having children. Afterwards, she worked in the family post office business, but was missing the corporate environment. A returner programme helped her back and she is now in a fast-paced, tech environment with all the support she needs.

Michele Anderson told a similar story. She is now Deputy Director HR in Strategic Command at the Ministry of Defence. She also has five children and took a 12-year career break. Her background is in electrical engineering and, before her children were born, she worked for BT as a sales and marketing director. She got into HR after Googling transferable skills and sales and marketing and applying for a Home Office returner programme.

Antona Davy, a senior consultant at Deloitte, had a long journey back to a professional career after trying to return during the early part of Covid.  Having worked for 16 years as a risk manager in professional services, she didn’t even get an interview when she lowered her ambitions and pitched for the kind of jobs school leavers could do.  She did some unpaid work at a charity to get out of the house. One day she was in a petrol station and noticed they were looking for staff. She was given a two-week trial and stayed for two years, being promoted to supervisor after a few weeks, which helped her regain her confidence at a time when she was also dealing with the breakdown of her marriage and looking after two young children. She got into Deloitte Ireland through a returner programme – one of just eight people accepted out of 300.

Rabiya Rigwan, a QA engineer at the Very Group, shows how determined many returners have had to be in the face of the upheaval caused by Covid. She applied for over 100 jobs before joining a returner programme through Women Returners. A civil consultant who went into the family business after the birth of her second child, Rabiya had several career breaks due to family crises, health issues and relocation and taught herself some of the skills she uses now through Udemy.

Tamsin Morris is a solicitor at Mills & Reeve, having come full circle in her working life. She left her job as a lawyer when she couldn’t get flexible working after her son was born. She then worked for a charity in a women’s prison, supporting the families and children of female prisoners and eventually ended up managing the mother and baby unit. At the start of Covid, she left to work as an advocate for domestic abuse victims before eventually getting back into the legal profession.  She says: “I am a strong believer in women empowering women and each other. [As returners], we are bringing something unique and that should be celebrated.”

*For the first time this year, Women Returners Conference attendees also had the option to attend follow-on in-person networking events in London, Leeds and Edinburgh after the online conference in order to build their peer support community and to meet recruiting employers in-person.


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