London – If you want to run one of the UK‘s 100 largest companies you have a better chance if your name is David than if you are a woman. (Eight Davids, six women.)
For more than 30 years, women have been trying to make inroads into top management with few results.
Now there is a game-changer: women “returnships” – high-level, paid internships to get experienced, skilled women back into work after raising a family or looking after elderly parents.
”The majority of people who step out of organisations don’t do it with the intention of leaving permanently,” said Julianne Miles, who co-founded Women Returners, an organisation that has helped hundreds of women find jobs.
”They think I’ll take a break for a few years and then I’ll go back. Sometimes a few years turns into five years, 10 years, and the more amount of time that goes on the more challenging it is to get back in.”
Miles said a number of factors – external and internal – keep women from going back. Companies see gaps in CVs and see risk; the women often need flexible hours; and many lose their self-confidence and professional identity, writing themselves off as ‘just mothers’.
Henrietta Gibb is back at work after taking a 12-year break from the corporate world to raise three children. She applied to more than 30 companies before getting an internship at Tideway, the company building a new sewage system for London.
”I felt quite confident but then when I sat down for the interview I suddenly thought: ‘Oh my goodness! What am I doing? Am I going to be able to answer these questions properly? I think that’s a natural way to feel probably when you’re suddenly back in that situation,” said Gibb, Tideway’s creative services manager.
Looking out on a muddy construction site along the River Thames as orange bulldozers, dump trucks with flashing lights, diggers and forklifts rumble by, Gibb said it took some adjusting to full-time work.
Her 11-year-old daughter is ”old enough to know I’m not there”.’
”During the summer holidays she’d text: ‘when are you going to be home?’ and ‘what are you cooking for dinner?’,” Gibb said.
Parenting skills such as multi-tasking and crisis management, Gibb said, can transfer to the office. Many companies agree and welcome the return of experienced women.
”They come in and they are extremely valued members of staff and help move through the organisation and get promoted along the way,” said Julie Thornton, human resources manager for Tideway.
The construction company sees the returnships as a way to address its gender gap; only 10 percent of employees are women.
But what does Thornton say to the man who has never taken a career break, doesn’t ask for flexible working hours and resents the woman now sitting next to him, who may be promoted over him.
”We know that organisations are more effective, more efficient, more productive when they have a balance of individuals whether that’s gender, whether that’s race, et cetera,” Thornton said.
”For me it’s about actually embracing that difference and actually there is opportunity for all people and we should embrace that and make sure all people have the career path they are looking for. But we shouldn’t exclude because they’ve taken care and responsibility of people and taken time out of work,” Thornton said.
It makes economic sense: the annual affect that women out of the workforce (or those working below their skills) has on the UK economy is 1.78bn pounds ($2.37bn).
There are a number of organisations, such as Women Returners, helping women get back to work. In the US, iRelaunch and Moms Corp have found jobs for countless women.
Many elements have converged to make these returnships a viable, accepted form of recruitment: women at home are an untapped resource; careers are longer so it makes sense for women to go back to work in their mid-30s or 40s; and it’s a given that diversity strengthens companies.
But it’s hard to underestimate the confidence women who’ve been out of work need to summon just to apply for a job – they feel their skills are outdated. They wonder how they will cope with new technology and fear they won’t fit in – even regarding their appearance.
Miles said one of their most popular blogs is “what to wear to work”.
”Before I started I spoke to one of the women returners and I said: ‘I’m really worried what I wear’ and on the women returners’ blog it says ‘sometimes you can go stand outside the company and watch what people are wearing’. I know that every company, every organisation, has its own culture about what they wear,” Gibb said.
In the end, Gibb didn’t feel the need to lurk outside Tideway and opted for ”basic” attire.
On the day we met, she was wearing black trousers, a white shirt and a black windbreaker with Tideway written in turquoise.