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'Ask For What You Want and Then Zip It:' Advice For Women Returning To Work After a Career Break

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More than 200 people gathered in London this week to talk about strategies for getting back to work after a career break. “You have so much to offer,” Julianne Miles, co-founder of Women Returners, told the crowd. Her UK-based group is dedicated to helping employers structure “returnships,” or paid internships that train people coming back to work after time away, often to raise children.

There is an obvious gap to fill. Companies, facing a dearth of female leadership, a stubborn gender pay gap, and imperative to embrace more diverse thinking, need to attract experienced women. In the UK, there are 550,000 professional women on career breaks; about three-quarters of them say they want to go back to work at some point. Among the attendees at the conference, nearly 70% had professional or postgrad qualifications and a similar share had over 10 years of work experience.

“It’s a market failure we need to sort out,” said Sharmini Selvarajah, head of the returners policy team inside the Government Equalities Office.

In 2014, formal returnships in the UK were offered at three institutions: today there are 37. These programs started in finance, where the absence of senior women is notable, and efforts to retain and recruit female professionals has been going on for at least a decade in the US. (In 2016, New York-based Path Forward, founded to increase the share of women in technical roles, expanded to focus on helping companies set up mid-career internships for parents and other caregivers who had taken a career break).

The returnship movement is gaining steam in the UK, in a wide range of industries. British prime minister Teresa May committed £5 million ($6.6 million) in the spring to support people coming back to work after time taken off for caring. The funds are being used to develop best practices, conduct research on what programs exist and work, and to create public-sector returnships.

Contrary to popular perception, not all women want to come back part-time. Women Returners surveyed their 3,500 members, and found:

  • 44% were looking for a full-time job
  • Only 17% said that part-time work was essential
  • 87% said that some form of flexible working was important
  • 36% felt they had to take a pay cut or demotion to go back

“We need to set aside the stereotype that all women returners are mothers with small children looking for part-time work,” Miles said.

Words to the wise

Tricia Nelson, who joined EY in 2011 as a returner and is now a partner, suggested women returning to work be direct about what they need. “Ask for what you want and then zip it,” she said. “Don’t unpack it live.”

Alexander Clifford Turner, EMEA chief financial data offer for Bloomberg, agreed: “It’s a very good tactic to say what you want and shut up.”

Stephanie Marshall, head of talent for Fidelity International’s UK and Ireland practice, said she was encouraged to see more women asking for just that. Five years ago, no one would ask about flexible working. “Now, they are much more up front about it,” she said, noting that it’s not just returners asking for it. (Thank you, millennials.)

Many suggested that returners practice articulating what skills they bring, and not being shy about advocating for the skills they developed while caring for children.

“Its not about just returning to work, it’s returning to a work that is commensurate with your skills and experience,” said Selvarajah. “Remember to recognize the skills you gained outside of paid work,” she said, noting that she is much better at her work as a result of experience raising her children, including managing and negotiating.

“We need to think about gaps in a different way, and what we learn from those gaps,” said EY’s Nelson.

Don’t sell yourself short

On average, women’s salaries drop about 2% every year they are out of the workforce, a figure which rises to 4% for professional women. But many argued against returners taking a demotion, or less money. It can sometimes necessary if a returner wants to work three days, for example, or chooses not to commit to travel (when a previous role might have required that). But failing to negotiate strongly will inevitably perpetuate the gender pay gap and make promotions to top positions less likely.

Anna Johnstone, head of talent and development for Women Returners, said she is encouraged at the growth of returnships and the skills and expertise she sees in its members. But she is frustrated that returners don’t always appreciate this, settling for more junior roles than they might deserve. “It’s not just about getting them back, but also fully utilizing their skills,” she said

Clifford-Turner, the only man in the room during the morning sessions, agreed. “I am surprised by the lack of other businesses trying to get a channel to this group,” he said.

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