Normalising career breaks

Women Returners’ annual conference heard from returners, coaches and other experts about routes back into work after a career break.

woman looking at office buildings


Normalising career breaks should be a natural part of a 30- to 40-year career, the co-founder of the pioneering returner support organisation Women Returners told its annual conference yesterday.

Julianne Miles said the organisation was dedicated to removing the “career break penalty” through partnering with employers on returner programmes and opportunities, putting returners in contact with each other and advocating for them. Since it was set up in 2014 it has made huge progress and continues to build on that work, despite Covid-19. This year’s two-day online conference has a record number of delegates. Usually a maximum of 200 can attend, but this year that number has increased to 240.

The online conference includes panel discussions, coaching sessions, one to one coaching booths and networking sessions with other returners and employers. The aim, said Miles, is to boost returners’ confidence, provide them with advice and inspiration and help them to form networks of support and encouragement. Miles, herself a returner having retrained as a chartered psychologist in her break, advised returners to stay positive, target and create the role they wanted and believe in themselves. “Never write yourself off,” she said. “You are still the same professional person you were before your career break. When you are back up to speed you will fly.”

Monday’s keynote speaker was Jane Garvey, co-presenter of the BBC’s Woman’s Hour. She said it was “generally preposterous” to dismiss the life experience that women gain from being out of the workforce.  She said taking a career break to care for others changed people for the better.

She is leaving Women’s Hour after 13 years and striking out to do other things. “I need to see whether I can do them,” she said, adding that women returners had inspired her.  She added that her experience with BBC Women, the organisation that sprang up in relation to the BBC’s equal pay problems, had created a network of women coming together and supporting each other which was more important than the pay issue they were campaigning on. “We had never taken the time to get to  know each other which was a terrible mistake as we all lost out. Now we communicate on a regular basis and support each other,” she said, adding that she hoped women returners made similar connections at the conference that would help them in the future.

Returner voices

A panel discussion, hosted by Garvey, followed and included women who had returned to a variety of careers, including Clare Lysaght from the Rapid Innovation Team at Accenture Ireland who returned as a result of Accenture’s Resume programme and support of Women Returners’ team and Wilma Purser, Marketing Manager, Equity Gap, who had worked for decades in PR and marketing but struggled to change career after completing a master’s in computing.

Tolu Anifaleje spoke of how she had taken a career break to look after her children and had volunteered in Cambridge as a trustee with several charities and helped run a women’s group at my church. After a stint working for the Anglia Ruskin Law Clinic, her current role as a housing solicitor at Camden council came into her inbox courtesy of Women Returners. She was able to work flexibly and got support from the council as well as coaching from Women Returners.

The last panellist was Dr Sarah McKelvie, now a Clinical Fellow in Geriatric Medicine, Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust, who spoke about her 13-year career break. Like Anifaleje she did voluntary work during her break. She attended the Women Returners conference twice before taking the plunge and spoke of how she was not quite ready to return after her first conference. She said it had inspired her, but it was not until her second conference that she really listened to the coaching advice and felt mentally ready to try to return. She said one of the key spurs to action from the conference was a statement from a speaker about not making your life a research project. When Covid-19 hit, she contacted local hospitals about some informal retraining and is now working in a full time post on a busy acute medical ward. 

Coaching and networking

Another returner panel discussion, hosted by Trish Halpin, former editor-in-chief of Marie-Claire, consisted of four very different stories. Angela Burke spoke of how she had had a seven-year break, the last two years of which were taken up with breast cancer treatment which had spurred her to get back to work. She is now working part time as an office manager for Sportslab while teaching piano on the side. Sonal Pal took a career break from work as a software consultant because she had no family to help with childcare. During her break she worked as a teaching assistant and ran her own catering business, but felt she needed more mental stimulation. She got back to work as a Technical Assurance Engineer via Skanska’s returner programme and describes her work as her ‘me time’.

Alison Mann took just over two years out of work to adopt her two children and was headhunted for a flexible position as Strategic Customer Engagements EMEA, at Amazon Web Services – a sideways step from her pre-break roles in software solution selling, strategic account management and helping global customers to transform their businesses. She says Amazon has an intensive three-month training programme for all new starters which helps them understand the culture and the company. That culture, which focuses on looking at your “superpowers” rather than on what you can’t do, in combination with a six-month Women Returners coaching programme, gave her the confidence she needed to return successfully. 

Bridget Clifford, now Senior Supervisor in the Groups Department of the Insurance Division of the Bank of England, spent 10 years as a consultant and running the family business before her return. She spoke of the importance of having a peer group of returners to talk to as she branched out into insurance for the first time. Like Alison, she said she had undergone a steep learning curve as she was going into a new area, but added that the Bank provided a lot of training support. She said her experience showed that women should not be put off from applying for posts because they didn’t have technical knowledge if training was provided.

The panel recommended coaching, having a back-up care plan and networking. Mann said: “Everyone has doubts, but I learned that good enough is good enough. You cannot be perfect at everything. Get back out there and feel alive.”


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