The untapped potential of women returners

The volume of women leaving the workplace is mounting post-pandemic, with many facing their workloads increasing both at home and at work.

The untapped potential of women returners

The volume of women leaving the workplace is mounting post-pandemic, with many facing their workloads increasing both at home and at work. With government research stating that 1.8 million women are currently economically inactive because they are caring for their home or family, this has created a vast and increasing pool of untapped potential.

This oversight isn’t just hurting women, it’s having a negative impact on the economy. A recent report by PwC identifies the staggering costs of the career break penalty for women, with their research suggesting that addressing this problem within the UK workforce could be worth £1.7bn to the economy. 

Women in business are vital for business success and sustainability, and not just because they make up 50% of available talent. Delivering a balance of masculine and feminine energy to the workplace is essential to successful decision making in business. When I talk about masculine and feminine energy, I’m not referring exclusively to gender ‘ we all have both within us. Feminine energy is all about being more intuitive and rational, listening generously and being sensitive to the needs and emotions of others. Having this empathetic and rational influence in your organisation is vital, from customer service through to leadership, we can all benefit from being more connected.

Whilst we all have a balance of masculine and feminine energy within us, a way to ensuring that this balance is maintained within your organisation is by creating gender diversity. That’s why we need role models for the next generation of women and girls coming through the ranks, helping them to understand and harness their power and build confident leaders. 

What creates the career break penalty, and why does it disproportionately impact women?

The Institute for Fiscal Studies Gender Pay Gap report states that the gender pay gap widens significantly between our late 20s and early 30s. Having children is largely the reason for this widening of the pay gap ‘ by the time the first child is 12 years old, women’s wages are a third below that of men. 

With the cost of childcare costing 30% of the average UK wage, for many parents continuing with full time work is fiscally unfeasible. With the pressure mounting, the sad truth is that the societal onus still appears to sit squarely on the shoulders of the mother when it comes to childcare. Grazia reports that there are currently 870,000 mothers in the UK who want to work but can’t because of the cost and availability of childcare. This totals 48% of the aforementioned 1.8million women currently economically inactive. That’s almost half of women taking a break from the workforce who want to work but can’t afford it because of the crippling cost of childcare. 

The disproportionate cost of childcare is clearly a huge contributing factor to why women take career breaks, but this isn’t the sole reason why women take time out from their careers. Other reasons include caring for elderly relatives, with the Independent reporting that women are twice as likely to leave their jobs due to unpaid caring responsibilities, including caring for elderly relatives. 

Deloitte’s recent Women @ Work: A Global Outlook report found that only one in five women surveyed felt that their employers have helped them to created clear boundaries between work time and personal time during the pandemic, and with school closures and caring responsibilities ramping up, this has created the perfect storm for women. 

We know why women are leaving the workplace in droves, now it is important to cover the challenges that await them when they attempt to go back to their careers after taking a break. PwC’s Women Returners report finds that three in five women return to lower-skilled or lower-paid jobs following a career break, with reports that recruiters are less likely to put women returners forward for a job, compared to working counterparts. On top of this, those who take career breaks often report a drop in confidence when they return, often feeling out of touch with industry trends and software. which can make it difficult to get back into the swing of full time work. 

How can we, as employers, avoid creating a career break penalty for our workers? 

As employers, we all must play our part to encourage women returners back to the workplace. This isn’t just the right thing to do ‘ it makes business sense. Not only are you improving both age and gender diversity within your teams which has a proven financial benefit, you are opening your business up to a new, high calibre, pool of talent. With such a high proportion of women working in jobs they are overqualified for, there is a huge opportunity for employers to develop pathways encouraging women to return to the workforce.

One way to do this would be to tackle the cost of childcare. Employers such as Next and Barclays offer childcare vouchers for staff, with large organisations such as Goldman Sachs even providing on-site nurseries. Whilst offering on-site childcare facilities isn’t realistic for every organisation, subsidising the cost of childcare could be a more realistic option. This government guide gives some practical guidance on how you could contribute to the cost of employee childcare.

Closing the confidence gap

Another crucial element that impacts on women returners is the confidence gap. On this subject I can talk from personal experience. Now, I would consider myself a confident and empowered woman, but when I returned to my own business after an eight-month maternity break I felt different. Processes had moved on; new technology had been implemented and I was left grappling with a drop in my own confidence. 

A practical step you can take to address the confidence gap that women face upon their return to work is through developing a returnship scheme for your organisation. Returnships are on the job training programmes that help career returners get up to speed with latest industry trends and company software, building confidence and preparing employees to step back into their responsibilities with ease. These have become increasingly popular, with Amazon, Santander and Microsoft offering these schemes, to name a few. 

Leadership training and mentoring is another way to help your returners build confidence. Every member of our leadership team receives our SmartPA leadership training, Bossing-It, to nurture leadership styles and create authentic and effective leaders within our teams. This helps our leaders build credibility and support teams in an empowering and energising way – bringing benefits to the business, to leadership and employees on every level. 

Finally, assess how suitable your workplace is for women returning from career breaks. Are you able to offer flexibility around working hours, or deliver benefits that appeal to your returners?

Sarra Bejaoui
Sarra Bejaoui

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