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Women in STEM 2019

Women returners are good for business and society

Julianne Miles,

(pictured above)

CEO at Women Returners

In the last few years, pioneering STEM employers have woken up to an untapped source of female talent – the neglected pool of experienced professionals who have taken a long career break.

These are the women who trained as engineers, scientists and software developers, and worked for five to 15 years before stepping off the career ladder. There are various reasons for career breaks, mainly childcare or eldercare but also health and relocation. What unites this group are the huge challenges they face if they want to resume their careers.

Highly-trained individuals face rejection after taking career breaks

Returners face a wave of bias when they apply for professional jobs. Candidates without recent experience are seen as ‘risky hires’ and mothers who took a break for childcare can be stereotyped as unambitious and less committed. As a result, returners rarely make it through a traditional recruitment screen.

Highly-qualified STEM women with multi-year breaks often apply for hundreds of jobs without even getting interviews. Persistent rejection undermines already-fragile professional self-confidence, and leads many returners to take jobs far below their skills level or to retrain into other fields.

Currently, many businesses are not doing enough to tap into this network of highly-skilled, motivated individuals that are keen to develop exciting new careers.

Sheila Flavell, COO at FDM Group

Companies must support women back into work

In 2015, Tideway was the first STEM employer to target returning professionals through a ‘returnship’, which provides a supportive bridge back to work. Seven women returners joined the construction project on a three-month, fixed-term contract, working in professional roles while receiving coaching and mentoring support. Subsequently, 90% accepted ongoing jobs.

Four years on, the returner programme market has grown rapidly within the UK construction, engineering and tech sectors, becoming a part of annual recruitment for a range of leading employers such as O2, Amazon Web Services, Balfour Beatty, Mott MacDonald and AECOM.

Businesses need to wake up to the power of returnships. Not only are they the right thing to do to help address gender inequality in the workplace, they also have a real business benefit. I’d encourage all of my HR peers to look seriously at returnships.

Ann Pickering, HR Director and Chief of Staff, O2

How does business benefit?

Returners form a highly-skilled talent pool, that can improve gender diversity and the gender pay gap. Programmes are open to all genders, but 90% of the people who take caring-related breaks are women. Returners also provide diversity of age and experience, bringing maturity, enthusiasm, a fresh perspective and the wealth of new skills developed during their career breaks. More broadly, targeting returners signals that the organisation recognises that careers don’t always follow a linear path and that valuable skills are not only developed in the workplace. Enabling people to return to STEM careers is not only good for society and the economy, it’s also good for business.

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