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News Enterprising Women

Getting Women Back to Work is the Key to Unlocking Business Growth

08 Mar 2019

IoD, Women in Business

The skills shortage is changing attitudes to women returning to work and making many employers question their recruitment policies, says Victoria McLean, founder and CEO of City CV.

“The UK has a massive productivity problem and I think that’s largely because we forget about half the population.” That’s according to MP Jess Phillips and she’s not alone. Research from the Harvard Business Review concludes that diverse companies (those employing workers of all backgrounds and ages) are 45% more likely to report growth in market share.


This is the theme of International Women’s Day 2019, an annual event to celebrate women’s achievements and challenge bias. I believe UK businesses have a huge role to play here. Getting a woman back to work means a productivity boost for the economy. If you’re an employer, she offers a great deal more: she brings a wealth of experience, maturity and a fresh perspective.

Women don’t lose their knowledge or skills when they take a career break. If anything, they gain new ones, such as how to cope under pressure, multi task, evaluate information, make decisions and build networks, let alone honing their expertise in dealing with challenging people.

The problem is many businesses don’t seem to appreciate these skills. Yet, the evidence is there: diversity of thought makes organisations more profitable. Still, for many women, finding a route back into the corporate world after a career break is intensely challenging.

There are many reasons for this. For some it’s a fight to get the flexibility they need. For others it might be lack of confidence or a sense that their skills are no longer relevant. Not to mention the stigma still attached to the ‘mommy track’.

For many women it is so off putting they simply don’t bother. They freelance instead, become ‘mumprenuers’ or pour all their energy and skills into home life. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but I see many highly talented women with fantastic skills and broad life experiences who are super keen to get back to work. They really feel the loss of their professional identity, they miss office life and want to be part of a company.

Cracking the return to work problem

You’re familiar with work placements and training schemes for graduates, but what about returnships for those who have taken an extended period of time away from the workplace? These Returner programmes started in the US about 10 years ago. My former employer – Goldman Sachs – was an early pioneer.

Returner programmes crossed the Atlantic in 2014. Initially focused on the investment banking sector, they’re now really catching on. In August 2017, the Government announced £5M of funding to develop programmes across the public sector.

Why do we need Returner programmes?

Many employers recognise that women returners are a great way to fill the skills gap. But, they’re seen as a risky hire. And, many women are nervous about returning to work.

Returnships remove much of the anxiety and risk for both sides. The aim is to have a job at the end of the programme (which usually lasts three to six months) but there’s no guarantee or commitment on either side.

Instead, companies offer a structured, paid programme of coaching, mentoring and skills updates alongside opportunities to work on projects, assignments or in a temporary role. In return, they have the opportunity to hire a savvy new employee. One who is delighted to be back in the professional world and determined to make it work.

It’s still early days for returnships. And, there has been some criticism that they are too London-focused and mainly cater to women returning to senior roles in the City. But they are changing attitudes and providing role models for other regions and industry sectors.

More importantly, I believe the returnship model can be adapted to meet the needs of any size business. You may not have the financial and HR resources of Bank of America or JPMorgan, but you can still offer great career opportunities to women. Here are three ways you can boost your business by helping women get back to work.

  1. Can you flex?
    To attract a wider talent pool, you might need to review your work practices. Flexible work patterns could mean compressed schedules, term time only, alternative start/finish times or remote working. Highlighting flexible options in your recruitment ads demonstrates that you’re an understanding employer and will encourage returners to apply.
  2. Mind your language
    Recruiting great female employees involves more than offering flexibility. The language you use – in your job ads, LinkedIn pages and website – says so much about your company culture. And, it is important to attracting talent. Textio, an augmented writing platform, has discovered that the inclusion of certain words in job ads can lead to fewer women applying. According to the research, the average job ad contains twice as many masculine-tone words, such as ‘enforcement’ and ‘fearless’ than feminine-tone phrases, such as ‘transparent’ and ‘in touch with’.
  3. Review your recruitment policies and provide support and mentoring
    You might need to challenge some gender- and age-related stereotypes in your recruiting and onboarding teams. Do they need training to bring their interviewing skills up to date? Research from the Longevity Forum revealed that ageism in the recruitment process begins at age 40 for women (men don’t fare much better at 45).

    Offering a structured programme of support and mentoring is a big attraction to returners who may feel they’ve lost touch with workplace practices. Again, you don’t need an investment banking sized budget. There are many ways you can help new employees refresh their skills and build confidence, such as inhouse training, online courses, volunteering and attending industry events.

    But, it’s important to schedule time for this. Lack of support and career development opportunities are often why women returning to work feel they don’t fit in – and, ultimately, leave. On-going communication and honest feedback from a mentor can fill this void.

    Victoria McLean, will be chairing the ‘Addressing the Skills Gap’ session at the IOD’s Brittelstand Symposium on 13 March. We’re looking forward to discussing many of the challenges facing mid sized enterprises. Do join us if you can.

The IoD’s commitment to inclusive workplaces

The IoD is committed to supporting inclusive workplaces as part of our work to encourage leaders to not just accept difference but to embrace it and to challenge themselves to think differently, to innovate and be better. We have come far and we’re making strides, but we need to push ourselves further to unlock the opportunities and fuel growth.

Whatever your gender or ethnic background, there is a single statutory framework controlling the actions of company directors. The IoD is also the foremost supporter of the UK Corporate Governance Code which sets the standards for board activity. You can learn more about both by reading the IoD Business Information Service Factsheet Collection.

The IoD is running a series of Inclusive business events in 2019

Get involved or find out more

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