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STEM employers tackle the career break penalty

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Julianne Miles

CEO and Co-Founder, Women Returners

Over the last five years, there has been increasing recognition among STEM employers that they have been missing out on a wealth of female talent.

The growth of returner programmes has enabled hundreds of experienced women with science, technology and engineering skills to get their careers back on track after multi-year career breaks.

The career break penalty

Despite longstanding initiatives to attract more female graduates into STEM, if these women step out of their roles in mid-career for an extended period – for childcare, eldercare, health or other reasons – they tend to fall off the corporate radar.

When these women do decide to resume their careers, they face the ‘career break penalty’, labelled as risky candidates by recruiters biased against a lack of recent experience.

Women returners struggle to find roles at a suitable level, and are told they are over-qualified for more junior positions.

Widespread rejection further erodes the low professional confidence that many returners suffer from, causing these highly skilled women to give up any hope of getting back into their previous careers and exacerbating the STEM gender imbalance.

Stemming the leak

Encouragingly, this leakage of female talent has started to be addressed. In 2015, Tideway – the infrastructure project building the London Super Sewer – partnered with Women Returners to pioneer the first UK STEM returner programme, supporting seven professionals back into experienced roles.

Targeted returner programmes provide women (and men, although they are the minority at this stage) with support back into a suitable level role.

Bringing in a cohort of experienced STEM returners can rapidly improve gender diversity at managerial levels and create diverse role models for junior women.

Participants take on work using their skills and experience while receiving support, in the form of training, mentoring and/or coaching, to smooth their transition back.

Following the success of Tideway’s programme, there has been rapid take-up, with over 30 leading organisations in the construction, tech, telecoms, transport and engineering sectors launching similar initiatives.

Three to six month returnships proven successful in mid-senior roles

The most popular format is a returnship – a professional placement of three to six months with a high possibility of an ongoing role at the end of the programme.

Employers typically bring in cohorts of four to ten to offer peer support as well as a personalised experience.

Returnships tackle the ‘perceived risk’ barrier, providing a trial period for both sides. As typical conversion rates to ongoing roles are 75-95%, returnships have proved to be a successful on-ramp to permanent positions at mid to senior levels.

Some employers with high levels of internal support prefer a ‘supported hiring’ format, bringing returners directly into permanent roles.

This enables returners’ skills to more easily be matched with existing open roles. This format may become increasingly popular if recruitment tightens.

Sustainability of returner programmes

There is strong evidence of the business case for returner programmes. Bringing in a cohort of experienced STEM returners can rapidly improve gender diversity at managerial levels and create diverse role models for junior women.

Line managers consistently report that returners bring maturity, enthusiasm, depth of experience and a fresh perspective to a team.

There are positive signs that returner programmes are here to stay. Many leading STEM employers including AWS, AECOM, Balfour Beatty, BAE Systems, Mott MacDonald, O2 and Sky have already evolved their pilot programmes to make returner hiring a regular part of annual recruitment.

As the economy heads into recession, it’s important that organisations avoid reverting to risk-averse hiring, to sustain this progress and to continue to harness the much-needed skills and experience of women returners to STEM.

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