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Women in STEM 2021

Sector collaboration gets returners back on track

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Julianne Miles

CEO and Co-Founder, Women Returners

The pandemic reversed the growth trend in STEM returner programmes. A collective approach is needed to ensure that the valuable talent of women returners is not wasted.

Experienced STEM professionals returning to work after taking an extended career break for childcare, eldercare or other reasons bring a wealth of skills and experience. They’re a diverse talent pool in terms of  gender (90% are women), age and experience. However, they face high barriers when they want to resume their careers, rejected as risky candidates in mainstream recruitment due to widespread bias against their lack of recent experience.

Reversal of returner programme growth

Pre-COVID, the landscape for returners was improving. STEM employers running returner programmes grew from two in 2015 to over 30 in 2019, providing hundreds of talented professionals with a supported route back to work.

The majority launched returnships, paid three to six-month professional placements where 75-90% of participants typically convert to permanent employment. Others preferred ‘supported hiring’, bringing returners directly into permanent roles.

However, the pandemic reversed the growth trend. The number of returner programmes halved in 2020. Despite a recent resurgence, this has been a major set-back in harnessing the skills and experience of women returners.

Cross-sector learning

As UK recruitment recovers, there is an opportunity to get returner recruitment back on track.Sector-wide collaboration is needed to make returner hiring less vulnerable to fluctuating hiring needs of individual firms. The Diversity Project, an employer-led body within the savings and investment sector, provides one blueprint for how this can be achieved. In 2020, they partnered with Women Returners to launch an innovative cross-company returnship.

This enables employers with smaller hiring needs to be part of a larger structured programme and to benefit from expert consulting, a peer network to share learnings, and economies of scale. Returners enjoy cross-firm coaching and a supportive cohort. After a successful pilot, where 82% of returners secured permanent roles despite the pandemic, this year the programme has doubled in size.

Cross-company collaboration

This model is readily transferable across sectors. Innovate Finance, the industry body representing UK’s fintech community, recently announced a partnership with Women Returners to launch a UK FinTech Cross-Company Programme. They are currently bringing together interested employers, for an early 2022 cohort intake.

Enabling experienced women to return to work is an issue for organisations, society and the economy. By working together, employers can create better solutions and accelerate progress towards making supportive returner hiring a sustainable part of regular recruitment.

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