When Emma Codd, a managing partner at accountancy firm Deloitte, was standing outside her daughter’s school on one of the rare days that she could make pickup, she noticed a trend.
“I had three separate conversations with mothers who had left high-flying careers and were still out of the workplace and wondering how to get back in,” she says. “I thought, ‘There’s something going on here’, and I went into work the next day and began work on Deloitte’s Return To Work scheme to reach those women.”
The scheme launched in 2015 but Emma says she’s still trying to lead a cultural change around attitudes to career-break mothers. “They shouldn’t have to opt out of the workplace, but rather the workplace should change for them because they have so much to offer.”
Change is a long time coming.
In the past few years, several studies on working mothers have made for rather depressing reading. According to a French study in April, working mothers face a “motherhood penalty” and are paid 3 per cent less than their childless colleagues for each child they have. In 2015, an American study found that employers were more likely to hire an under-qualified candidate than a qualified mother who had taken a career break. And research by PricewaterhouseCoopers, Women Returners and the 30pc Club (who campaign for better representation of women on FTSE100 boards) found that two-thirds of women go into low-skilled roles below their potential when they return to work after career breaks. “Over a third of the career-break mothers we surveyed expected to return to work at a more junior level, simply because returners often undersell themselves,” says Julianne Miles, co-founder of Women Returners. “We still have a way to go, but employers are finally realising the potential of this until now untapped talent pool of career-break mothers.”
Julianne worked in corporate strategy before a four-year career break while her children were young, and then retrained as a psychologist. Around this time she also noticed a school gate trend of mothers, all former professionals, struggling to find a route back to work that fitted around their new lives, and so she cofounded Women Returners. Yesterday’s annual conference included a panel of returners telling their stories, practical sessions on CV writing, industry trend talks, plus the presence of large public and private sector companies, like Credit Suisse and Bloomberg, which are actively looking to hire returners. “When mothers take a career break — because of childcare costs, spousal relocation, or just wanting to be at home — they feel the corporate door is closed to them and write themselves off,” says Julianne. “At the same time, organisations are losing talented women in droves, and while the women have CV gaps, companies have skills and diversity gaps. I want to bridge the two.” Emma says self-doubt is often a career-break mother’s biggest obstacle. “Some may have returned to work briefly many years ago to an unforgiving workplace or boss. Some may be worrying about childcare arrangements or feel they’re up against younger people or an industry that’s moved on. But this is nonsensical because motherhood gives you skills needed in the workplace. After having children, I became excellent at time management.
“Mothers juggle conflicting demands and have maturity, experience and are organised — and anybody who has tamed a toddler tantrum will have patience and negotiation skills. These mothers also come to us with amazing energy because they haven’t been burning themselves out at a desk for the past 10 years.” “These women have energy and enthusiasm precisely because they’ve been away from work for so long,” says Carol Fishman Cohen, the Boston-based co-founder of iRelaunch, who describes herself as the “grandmother of the back-to-work movement”. Carol had an 11-year career break and went back at the age of 42 when her youngest child started school. Her subsequent best-selling book, Back on the Career Track: A Guide for Stay-at-Home Moms Who Want to Return to Work, came out the year she started iRelaunch, which works with large companies in London and the US to create “returnships” for returning mothers. Her TED talk, How To Get Back To Work After a Career Break, has been viewed over 1.3 million times.
“The reason companies are interested in these programmes is because this pool of returning mothers is desirable,” says Carol. “They’re educated, experienced, mature and at a stable life stage. Plus they have energy and enthusiasm — by year nine of my career break I was chomping at the bit to get back.” Carol works mainly with large banks, IT, engineering and accountancy firms, but says we should expect to see returnships filter out to other industries and smaller companies. “In the meantime, figure out what you want to do,” she advises would-be returning mothers. “Have your interests changed in the past five years? On a career break, you can reflect on whether you were on the right path to begin with in a way you can’t when you’ve got your nose to the grindstone. Did you fall into your first career by accident or to fulfil your parents’ expectations? About a third of the women I see are in this boat and decide to relaunch their career in a new direction. If you’re unsure, a career coach can help.” Carol also suggests using LinkedIn, updating your CV, speaking to your old company and former colleagues and refreshing your skills via courses. “This signals to an employer you’re serious,” she says. “And get out of the house and meet real people for coffee — you can’t relaunch yourself from behind a laptop.”
Lastly, some often overlooked advice on returning to work. “Have the conversation with your partner and make sure they’re on board,” says Sir Cary Cooper, professor of psychology and health at Manchester Business School at the University of Manchester. “There’s often an assumption within a family that a returning mother’s salary has to justify childcare costs, which is, firstly, unrealistic and, secondly, wrong as it implies that these costs are ‘hers’ to cover. They’re not. Don’t feel like you have to justify a return to work if your well-being and happiness depends on it.” Sixty per cent of the women surveyed by Women Returners cited “personal fulfilment” and “identity” as a factor in wanting to return to the workplace.
“Because the reality is,” continues Cooper, “career-break mothers can return to work a lot more easily and happily if their partners take on more of the family load.”
‘How I did it’
Charlotte Blyton, 40, from Reading, took park in Deloitte’s Return To Work Scheme: “After I had my first child in 2008 I went back to work three days a week as an accountant. But my second baby in 2010 was the tipping point. My husband’s parents could no longer help, and childcare and commuting costs prompted me to leave work to become a full-time mother. “My youngest started school just over two years ago and I remember coming back to a quiet, empty house and thinking, ‘What now?’. Then I heard about the Deloitte scheme, applied and I now work four days a week and get half-terms off. The workplace loses too many talented, educated women because bosses aren’t flexible about the realities of parenting. As long as you’re doing great work and adding value to the company, Deloitte are open to agile working and appreciate you have a life outside of work. I also love showing my daughter that women can have a successful career that they don’t have to walk away from in their thirties.”
If you’ve been out of the workplace a while, you may have fallen behind on the digital skills front.
Organisations like Digital Mums (digitalmums.com) offer courses in digital skills to help mothers create flexible jobs that fit around family life. Up-skilling yourself before re-entering the workplace will not only make you more employable, but also boost your confidence.
Consider flexible working ...
Just because a job advert doesn’t specify that flexible working is possible, this doesn’t mean that you can’t try and negotiate it. If the employer thinks you are the right person for the job, they might well be open to discussing it. Research by Timewise found as many as nine in 10 managers would be amenable to flexible working options with new recruits — they just don’t say so up front.
Or a job-share
Organisations such as Further & More (furtherandmore.com) hook up senior level candidates looking for job shares with a range of multinationals. It was founded by Sara Allen, a former senior civil servant, who’s clear it’s not just sharers who benefit.