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the forgotten army

Thousands of highly qualified women give up their jobs to raise their kids — then struggle to return to their careers. Finally, businesses are realising their value and setting up ‘returnship’ schemes to help them get back on track.

The financier Lisa Unwin co-founded the She’s Back network

by Hilly Janes

It was a typical term-time afternoon. Lisa Unwin was sipping an americano in the cafe in Victoria Park, east London, after school pick-up. She’d been listening to Woman’s Hour announce its Power List of the 100 most influential women. “Why aren’t I on that list?” she asked herself, as indeed could many of the other women in the cafe, whom she knew only as somebody’s mum or as someone who used to be something impressive. “This is ridiculous,” she thought, “we are all kicking around, waiting for what exactly? I am 48, I have 20 years of working life ahead of me, but I feel as if my career is over.”

Unwin, a former partner with Arthur Andersen and director of brand and communication at Deloitte, was flying high until she was turned down for promotion after returning to work with small children. “I have a first-class degree in banking and finance and had been working for 20 years, but I no longer felt valued,” she says. Like many high-flyers, she is also married to one, with all the juggling that entails. “My children were four and six, my nanny left and I thought, it’s just not worth it.” So, in 2009, she quit.

She promoted herself to home CEO instead, volunteered at school, became a magistrate and wrote a short-lived blog. Then she read the 2015 government-backed Davies report on increasing the representation of women on FTSE 100 boards. From the top floor of her home near the park, Unwin can see the glittering towers of Canary Wharf. “Who’s putting their hand up over there and saying, ‘We had the women who could be running companies, but we lost them’?” she wanted to know.

The result is She’s Back, the organisation she has co-founded to enable professional women to return to work after a long career break. It helps employers find them, knocks out-of-date CVs into shape, and offers coaching on stepping back into senior roles, as well as conducting research. And She’s Back’s has company — government, corporate giants and women like Unwin are part of a big push to narrow the UK skills gap and increase diversity on executive boards by dipping into a wasted talent pool of highly qualified women who have dropped out of the workforce and face seemingly insurmountable barriers to re-entering it.

“Employers are missing a trick — older women have a lot to offer,” agreed Caroline Dinenage, minister for women, equalities and early years, two weeks ago at the publication of a landmark report by the Women and Work All Party Parliamentary Group, which focused on women returners. Its many recommendations included that every workplace with more than 250 employees should have a carers’ policy and consider introducing “returnships”.

Research published in late January by the Chartered Management Institute showed that 75% of managers believe senior male leaders have a responsibility to support the career development of women.

Women Returners is a network that brokers returnships with leading employers, typically about 12 weeks long, paid and with a potential permanent role. The co-founder Julianne Miles launched the first one in 2014 and demand is already huge, with hundreds of women sometimes applying for 10-20 places at each of about 25 companies, from banking and professional services to construction and tech. The majority stay on, while others may leave to start their own businesses or enter a different sector.

Women Returners has also revealed the shocking professional penalty women pay for an extended career break. In November, it published research suggesting that of the estimated 427,000 women professionals currently on career breaks, 249,000 (three in five) are likely to come back into lower-skilled and lower-paid roles.

Time to regroup: tax expert Charlotte Blyton was supported by a “comeback community” ANNA BATCHELOR

The findings, published with PwC and the 30% Club, which campaigns to improve diversity, help explain why the gender pay gap is still stubbornly wide for women in their child-rearing years, as the Resolution Foundation reported in January. But it’s not just women who pay the price. The study estimated that if there was no pay gap, their higher earnings and spending power could boost UK economic output by £1.7bn.

The Women Returners research also highlights why the executive pipeline through which talent flows to the top is still woefully empty of women, despite increasing demand from regulators for better gender balance, and a plethora of studies showing that more diverse leadership teams drive better results . Businesses, too, want decision-makers to reflect more diverse customers and clients. But here’s the catch: females tend to enter the executive pipeline in their thirties, just as they may be starting a family. The competing pressures cause women to quit; men and women enter professions in equal numbers, but women comprise only 40% of middle managers, 20% at senior levels and less than half that figure in CEO positions.

Only six women are currently at the helm of FTSE 100 companies — a seventh, Emma Walmsley, takes over as chief executive of the pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline at the end of March — but the fact remains there are still twice as many men named John who are CEOs or chairmen of FTSE 100 companies as there are female bosses.

There are myriad reasons why women quit their brilliant careers. Most obvious are long, inflexible days; stressful, expensive commutes; and the cost of childcare for an often globalised workforce deprived of traditional support networks. But that is not all: at a recent conference for potential returners, I met a mother who had taken time out to care for the terminally ill father of their little girl, another for her elderly parents, a third for her disabled son. One had been made redundant after her second maternity leave. The Equality and Human Rights Commission reports that as many as 54,000 women annually could be victims of pregnancy discrimination — double the numbers of a decade ago.

Then there are the husbands. Shani Orgad of the London School of Economics is studying the lives of professional women who are now full-time mothers. “Many felt forced to quit careers because of their husbands’ work conditions and long hours,” she discovered. “Some partners spend more time at home asleep than awake, or are often away on business. These are ambitious women with a strong sense of professional success, not ‘cupcake mums’ who fill their days with Pilates and pedicures. Some were earning more than their partners when they left the workplace.”

Many of these mothers live vicariously, trading off their own opportunities for those of their offspring. “They are caught up in a marathon of instilling their children with the idea of being high achievers,” says Orgad, who uncovered a whirlwind of mothers chauffeuring children to school and extracurricular activities, meeting one another for coffee while their child was at a Mandarin class. They are happy, rightly, for their children, but for themselves, not so much. “They are all talented and powerful, they could move mountains, it is such a loss,” Orgad laments. Of course, no one should harry maternal types out of the nest into unfulfilling work, sneer at mothers for switching to less demanding careers, or launching start-ups — although less than 5% of those are headed by women, according to official figures.

For would-be returners, though, there is no obvious route back, and employers have little access to the playground knowledge pool. The banking and finance sectors, for example, recruit mainly through executive search agencies. “They tend to hire people who are already in a similar role, using networks such as LinkedIn, so if you drop off their lists, you won’t be on the radar,” says Dominie Moss, a former City headhunter and mother of two young children, who launched the Return Hub in October to find and support talent and match individuals with employers. Another barrier is the application process. “This is predominantly online and the initial sifting is done by algorithms,” Moss points out, “so if you don’t use the right keywords, you will automatically be rejected.”

There is also the dreaded topic of the CV gap. Though who said giving birth, raising children, running a household, caring for elderly parents or coping with divorce, family ill-health and bereavement was a break? Add voluntary work and part-time study into the mix and the result is an unemployed army of resilient female project managers, multitaskers, listeners and diplomats — qualities that colleagues who stay in their comfort zone for 5-10 years may fail to develop. But as one former MD at a leading retail bank who is considering going back after having her first child says: “That is something many men do not recognise.” The result is that a large number of women, despite all their personal and professional achievements, write themselves off.

Samina Malik was a loss to a sector that desperately needs female talent: technology. A graduate in actuarial science, she was so wrapped up in her career at Reuters, then with a mobile technology start-up, that she hadn’t given motherhood much thought. She stopped working a week before her first child was due in 2005, planning to log back in two weeks later. “How difficult can this be?” she wondered. The answer was a surprise.

“I found it impossible to go back,” she says. “I just couldn’t outsource caring for my baby.” Another son arrived three years later and she put all her energy into nurturing them, fundraising at their school and running a local cricket team. “It became like a full-time job, and eventually another parent joked, ‘Samina, you have got to go back to work.’ ”

“I missed the relationships at work and the sense of a higher personal purpose,” she says. She thought of training as a maths teacher or setting up her own business. But when she Googled “flexible jobs”, she found Women Returners, joined its network and spotted returnships not far from her home in Berkshire with the telecoms giant O2. Malik was one of 12 women on its first returners scheme last May, learning about different roles and receiving training and mentoring. She is now a manager on a huge infrastructure project — the installation of smart energy meters in 26m UK homes by 2020.

Malik works four days a week, but may go full-time. “So far it’s working,” she says. “My husband is self-employed, so he has some flexibility. My older boy is a weekly boarder and the youngest will join him soon. I spoke at a Women Returners conference recently and my son said, ‘You’re quite inspirational, aren’t you, Mummy?’ ”

CHARLOTTE BLYTON found her way back into her profession as a tax specialist via the “comeback community” at the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW), which arranges events, workshops and online support for its members. With a degree in accounting, finance and French, Blyton had been a senior manager for leading global companies including Diageo and Deloitte. She went back to work three days a week after her daughter was born in 2008, and again when her son arrived two years later. “But I live near Reading and, with two small children and a long commute into London, it just didn’t work,” she says. “I didn’t want a nanny and my husband works long hours.”

Like Malik, Blyton’s new life revolved around her children. “I was a trustee and treasurer of our village preschool. Along with teaching a little French, it kept my brain ticking over. But I did miss the intellectual stimulation and social side of work — it could be a bit like Groundhog Day at home. At the school gate, I’d see mums dressed for work and think it might be nice to be like them again.” A job came up at the school, but a career coach questioned if that was what she really wanted. “It’s important not to limit yourself. I follow my heart and let my head work out what to do about the consequences,” Blyton declares.

After the ICAEW event, she was approached by Deloitte on LinkedIn and went to an insight day. It’s one of several leading global companies that have launched their own returnship scheme and she was accepted on its first alumni-only programme last year. “I was paid four days a week for 12 weeks and was able to take half-term off. I couldn’t believe it.” Blyton is now an assistant director in the tax division, working two days a week in London and two at home, managing her diary and Skyping overseas colleagues.

Many businesses are finding it harder to recruit and retain top talent and are being “gazumped” when graduate trainees accept a better offer at the last minute. Last year, 800 traineeships were left unfilled at the top 100 graduate employers, according to High Fliers Research. No wonder they have their eyes on the skills and staying power that women returners offer.

Returnships have their detractors, however, who argue that they are all about “fixing” women, when it’s workplace culture that needs to change. David Sproul, UK chief executive of Deloitte, has a reputation for dismantling the barriers that hold women back. CV gaps, he believes, are an outdated idea, because the nature of work is changing so rapidly. “People who’ve stayed in full-time roles are not working in the same way as five years ago — they’ve had to adapt and learn new skills. It’s the confidence and willingness to do that that we look for in women returners, not slotting back into a role that probably no longer exists.”

He is impressed by Deloitte’s female returners — as well he might be, with 1,000 applicants for 20 places. A drop in the ocean, admittedly, but Sproul hopes to scale up. He is struck by the range of experience and skills the women bring. “The quality of debate is better, and we make better decisions.”

Roll over flexible working — “agile” is the order of the day at Deloitte. “Of course, some people have to be office-based, but everyone can be present via a conference call,” Sproul says. Agile can mean working three days a week or mainly in term-time, starting and leaving at different times, or working from home at short notice.

While some firms, such as Allen & Overy, have set up an alumni pool to work with clients on a more flexible freelance basis, it will take a seismic shift in the way the legal profession is structured to create a clearer path to the top for mothers, or indeed men who want to be more present parents. Senior partners at law firms have to bring in business, and that can involve schmoozing and probably boozing several nights a week — not to mention foreign travel. This isn’t a prospect many mothers would relish, which might explain why although the majority of graduate trainees are female, just eight women held senior management roles at the UK’s top 50 law firms in 2015.

The business case for retaining or welcoming back lost female talent is compelling. It can cost £100,000 to train a lawyer, but with retention rates at only 80%, top firms are losing millions every year. Management consultancies used to parachuting teams into their clients’ offices and charging by the hour are no longer so welcome, thanks to the cost of office space, particularly in London. The new deal is a fixed fee with an agreed deadline, and more remote working — a pattern far more suited to women who want to work flexibly.

Over the bump: Women Returners helped tech specialist Samina Malik back to flexible working. ANNA BATCHELOR

IS IT EVER too late to go back? Not if 55-year-old Tina Sharp is anything to go by. An Oxford PPE graduate, she spent 20 years in investment banking before starting a family in 2002. After a 14-year break, she is now monitoring investment portfolios at MV Credit, a leverage buyout debt specialist. It’s a responsible role that demands an experienced eye, but one the company found hard to fill. Sharp works three days a week, although she has to be a bit flexible, and during the school holidays either she or her husband is at home.

Sharp hardly twiddled her thumbs. She freelanced for business contacts, held non-executive director roles and was chairwoman of governors at her children’s school, overseeing the appointment of a head teacher and a large rebuilding project. “I used to joke with the governor from the local authority that he was getting very good value for money from me,” Sharp recalls, “but I felt less valued as an individual. It wasn’t about the money — a lot of the time I have earned more than my husband. I just felt I had lost my professional identity.”

As her girls — now 18 and 16 — grew, the voluntary work at school fizzled out, as did her contacts. “I needed to do something,” she says. “I’m not ready to pack away my heels and pick up knitting needles.” Sharp was doing the ironing one day when she heard Julianne Miles on the radio. She registered with Women Returners, went to a couple of events, got help with her CV and was astounded to receive an email about her current role.

Packing away the heels may in any case be unaffordable for such women, who reach pensionable age at 67. Worryingly, according to research the retirement savings gap between women and men is 38%, with 21% of women having no provision at all.

Longer working lives pose another question: will today’s young talent really want to spend 50 years in the office? “Millennials especially want a more balanced life, they are not prepared to sacrifice it for something that doesn’t look attractive, and more young men want to fulfil themselves as fathers,” says Geraldine Gallacher, founder of the Executive Coaching Consultancy, which helps companies improve diversity and retention — especially of women — and who wants to hear from professionals thinking about returning to work for her research.

Policymakers are also taking a much keener interest in gender diversity. By last November, almost 100 firms had signed up for the Treasury-backed Women in Finance Charter, launched after a review by Jayne-Anne Gadhia, CEO of Virgin Money, committing to targets for more senior women and to report publicly on meeting them. Gadhia was one of the influential speakers at a Women in Finance summit in January for those implementing it. Also in November, the government-initiated Hampton-Alexander Review urged more FTSE-listed businesses to increase female leaders by the end of 2020, and disclose gender balance on executive committees.

Maria Miller MP is keeping a close watch as part of her brief as chairwoman of the parliamentary Women and Equalities Select Committee. A mother of three with a 20-year career in advertising and a ministerial post under her belt, she knows a thing or two about work/life balance. Miller would like to see legislation to make all jobs flexible.

“We need to finally take off the emperor’s new clothes and make laws to modify the 19th-century work model, when women had a peripheral role,” Miller says. Then a job for life was a sign of success, but now it’s a thing of the past. We may all live several lives — changing careers, caring, taking time out for new pursuits. And the future will demand educated, adaptable, resilient people who can rise to new challenges. Remind you of anybody?


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