Returning talent: a pioneering initiative for women returners


Have you taken a career gap to look after children or support elderly relatives? Are you finding it hard to get back into your sector or to get anything like a similar role to the one you left?

Many, many women are in the same predicament, but new returnship programmes are starting up to offer, if not a direct return route, then at least a way of regaining that vital surge of confidence that can help set the wheels in motion to finding a way back in.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s Returning Talent programme was one of the pioneers.

Now in its fourth year, the programme has evolved over time. Initially it was set up with a diversity focus and now it is more about more about creating a recruitment pipeline for Bank of America Merrill Lynch. There has also been a shift in the kind of questions attendees are asking, with a greater focus this year on practical careers issues rather than things like childcare. The timetable has been brought forward so it is no longer held in the summer but begins in January to coincide with the Bank’s recruitment cycle. There is also a one-day conference for around 50 people now with 20 of these being selected for a further two days of more in-depth workshops for those who seem more ready to return. Some 124 people applied to take part this year.

The Bank has also established an alumni network of people who have taken part so they can keep in touch. Those who attend come from a range of sectors and have to have had a significant career gap, but not just for parenting reasons. A growing number of men are applying.

The aim is not just to create a talent pool for Bank of America, which hired three attendees last year, but to give people the confidence to re-engage with work more broadly.


This year’s one-day conference, held at the Bank’s Canary Wharf office, included speeches and Q & As with high profile women who have been there and done it, such as Vanessa Vallely, founder of, and also a panel of women who have not only been through the Returning Talent programme, but found jobs in Bank of America Merrill Lynch as a result.

They included Sharon Bradley who took a two and a half year break to look after her daughter and returned last year as Global co-Chief Operating Officer for Fixed Income, Currencies and Commodities Sales. She had been working at Goldman Sachs for 18 years and had reached senior management level.  She disconnected for a year and a half when she left and says she would have kept in touch more if she had to take a similar break now.

To get back in she used her connections. She had also done some pro bono work for a charity developing children in disadvantaged communities through sport. Sharon joined four months ago. She is working with some of her former Goldman Sachs colleagues, but says she joined Bank of America Merrill Lynch partly to get a different perspective. Her senior role meant her return was a bit of a baptism of fire, but she sought out expert help to make sure she had the knowledge she needed to do her job.

Sally Shaw, Business Support Lead, Corporate Audit, had a 13-year break after having two children. The break was longer than she had anticipated as her husband got a job in the US and the family relocated. She did some book-keeping for her husband while she was on the career break and also set up a cross country club at her daughter’s school. To get back into work she had to network as she realised conventional approaches would not work. She tried some recruitment agencies, but says they were not interested when they heard about her career gap. She then contacted people she had worked with in the past. Many had climbed up the career ladder so were in a good position to help her with job opportunities and suggestions. She liked the idea of working for a US bank, given she had worked for Chase Manhattan in the past, and felt they would give her more support as a working parent.

Although Sally works full time, she has some flexibility to work from home or work flexi hours when needed. Several returners who have been taken on by Bank of America Merrill Lynch work part time too.


Sally admitted to being very nervous when she returned, but after an hour she felt she had never left. People who did not know about her career gap were shocked when she told them. She had kept up to date during her time out by keeping up with reading and learning about Excel. She says she was fully prepared for her interview. Sharon started negotiations with Bank of America Merrill Lynch last April when the role she had been offered became vacant, but couldn’t return until September due to family circumstances. However, she did some transition days in between so she could ease into the job.

Both women were asked about work life balance and said it was different for different people. Sharon said it was about managing expectations at home and at work and knowing where your boundaries were. Sally advised having support at home, whether that was in the form of childcare or cleaning.

Sally returned at a lower level than when she took her career break in part so that she didn’t feel overstretched. She realised through doing the Returning Talent programme that a COO role might be more suitable for her and that her broad knowledge of auditing was her unique selling point rather than a detailed current awareness of auditing regulations. “The Returning Talent programme helped me immensely,” she says. “It gave me the confidence that I still had all of the skills I needed and encouraged me to start networking.” She added that she also had the skills she gained from parenting, including greater patience and empathy.

The programme, which has the backing of senior leadership, was a first for Bank of America Merrill Lynch when it started four years ago, although a similar one has since been set up in its New York office. Several other businesses have also been in touch to learn from its experience. Ama Afrifa-Kyei, Diversity and Inclusion manager for EMEA,says she is keen to see it continue to evolve – to create and highlight more success stories, recruit more returners and partner with like-minded organisations. “We want to help as many people as possible fulfill their potential,” she says.

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