Why Im helping women get back to work
Tina.Freed / 21 Jul 2015
Last week, chancellor George Osborne announced measures to help stay-at-home mums back into jobs. Louisa Symington-Mills – who’s just established a new community for women returners – explains the challenges facing former female City workers:
Taking a career break from any profession – and subsequently planning your return to work – can be difficult in any industry.
Whether you’ve taken time out to raise a family, have a baby, study, travel or try your hand at a second career; the prospect is daunting.
Last week, the Chancellor George Osborne, announced that he wants almost 500,000 more women in the workplace by the beginning of 2016. His plans focus on stay-at-home mums and hinges on the success of new childcare plans, designed to “incentivise as many women as possible to remain in the labour market”.
That’s all well and good. But there are problems that need to be dealt with right now in terms of women returners. And one of the thorniest of all is the matter of women who work in the City. For them, going back to work after an extended break is particularly challenging and requires a lot more than good will.
So why is it such a hard nut to crack?
Firstly, it’s a highly competitive environment. With continued pressure on headcount, women returners face a busy and challenging marketplace.
Second, City employers often fail to realise that women returners have an edge – and, even if they do, they usually don’t take full advantage of it.
Recruiters must learn to place a value on the life skills gained during time out of the office.
Last weekend, as I shepherded my two toddlers through their usual Sunday afternoon routine, it crossed my mind that being their provider was more physically and mentally demanding than many a day I’ve spent in an office. The sheer level of multi-tasking and logistical coordination that’s required to manage a young family is often unparalleled in work.
Third, there are the practical challenges associated with returning to work in a professional industry – whether law, accountancy, wealth management. Maintaining professional development is typically a regulatory requirement and it can be hard to regain knowledge prior to starting back at work.
Basically, catching up can be really tricky. Addressing confidence, self-image, presentation and interview skills; the most able City worker is likely to need a refresher after a long period out.
Sponsored schemes, acquired via a ‘returnship’, would be ideal, but these are rare. So you need motivation and confidence in spades.
Where do you start in trying to find a supportive employer who looks at the skills and value you can add to their business, rather than dwells on your need for home-working, a 5.30pm daily departure, or the gap on your CV?
How do you figure out what you can offer the workplace, and what it can offer you? City workers, and particularly women, are trained to network – but those opportunities often vanish at the point of departure.
All this is why I’ve just launched a new networking group aimed at women returners: Back to the City.
Having spent the last two years growing Citymothers, a network for working mothers in City professions, and Cityfathers, the equivalent for working dads, finding a way to connect with women returners seemed a logical next step.
We hope to use the power of our existing network of 5,000 working parents to connect with women who have taken the decision to step away from City life for whatever reason – family, health, studies – and who want to plan a comeback.
I took just four months maternity leave from my job in banking when my first child was born, and was taken aback by how ‘different’ I felt upon the point of return.
As I sat through my first day back on the trading floor I felt clueless and exhausted, listening with bewilderment to the chatter around me.
Different trends, different companies and different clients – it felt like a decade had passed, not just a season.
Multiply that feeling by 3, 5 or 10-fold (depending on how long your break from work has been) and you probably get somewhere near to how many women returners feel.
Rachel, 35, a former management consultant who left the City in 2009 to look after her young family told me: ‘Lack of confidence stems from being out of London during my career break and having little contact with similar professional women in my home environment.
“I feel rusty during work-related conversations, and it’s hard to believe I achieved all that I did prior to the career break.’
Of course, there’s also the flexibility challenge. In a recent survey of Back to the City members, every respondent highlighted ‘finding flexible working hours’ as a significant obstacle in planning their return to the workplace.
And it’s no great surprise that women coming back to work (especially, but not only, those who have young families) would be unwilling to accept the same daily grind of long hours that faced them at the start of their career.
We know that flexible working practices are now creeping across the City, but there is still a long way to go.
That why I hope our new venture will offer a way for women returners to stay connected, meet with future colleagues and employers, refresh key skills, and find their way Back to the City.
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