City CV founder and CEO, Victoria McLean, shares her views on why welcoming women back to the workplace is good for business.
Women across the country raised a knowing eyebrow when MP Jess Phillips proclaimed that the reason the UK has a productivity problem is because “we forget about half the population”. She’s right. And, her words should be a wake-up call for UK businesses.
Many workplace studies have suggested that the uneven playing field between women and men comes at a significant economic cost, as it hampers productivity and weighs on growth. Indeed, research from the IMF reveals that the global growth and productivity benefits of closing gender gaps are even greater than we previously thought. That’s mainly because women and men bring different skills and perspectives to the workplace, including different attitudes to risk and collaboration.
Reducing barriers – financial and cultural – and helping women get back to work after a career break brings more than a productivity boost for the global economy. Research from the Harvard Business Review concludes that diverse companies (those employing workers of all backgrounds and ages) are 45% more likely to report growth in market share. It seems women career returners offer a great deal in terms of experience, maturity and a fresh perspective – many of us didn’t need HBR or the IMF to tell us that, but it’s always good to have back up!
My rallying call
The evidence is there: diversity of thought makes organisations more profitable. I really think it’s time businesses started to appreciate the knowledge and skills women gain from a career break. Anyone who has run a home and raised children knows how to cope under pressure, multi task, evaluate information, make decisions and build networks. And, they’ve certainly developed an abundance of strategies for dealing with difficult or emotional people.
Yet, for many women, finding a route back into the corporate world after a career break is intensely challenging. It’s so hard, some simply don’t bother. That’s not because they lack the desire or ambition to return to work; I see many highly talented women with fantastic skills and broad life experiences who are super keen to regain their professional identity. The problem is business attitudes.
I have three practical ways businesses can raise their game and help women crack the return to work problem.
- Offer supported returnships
These are no longer the preserve of the investment banks. Returner programmes are springing up in sectors as diverse as law, engineering and tech. They came in for some criticism in the early days for being almost exclusively London-focussed, but we’re now seeing more nationwide schemes, which is fantastic.
The great thing about returnships is they remove much of the anxiety and risk for both sides. The aim is to have a job at the end of the programme (which usually lasts three to six months). But, there’s no guarantee or commitment on either side.
Instead, companies offer a structured, paid programme of coaching, mentoring and skills updates alongside opportunities to work on projects, assignments or in a temporary role. In return, they have the opportunity to hire a savvy new employee. One who is delighted to be back in the professional world and determined to make it work.
- Embrace technology, flexibility and remote working
To attract a wider talent pool, companies need to review their work practices. Flexible work patterns could mean compressed schedules, term time only, alternative start/finish times or remote working. Or, some combination of all of these.
Here, at City CV we have bespoke contracts for each team member. Some work full time from head office, but most enjoy some sort of flexibility whether that’s in hours or location. In my view, trusting your team to work in the way that best suits their lifestyle is essential to attracting and retaining highly skilled people. And, it’s not just women – we have some great men on the team too.
- Build diversity into your employer brand
How well do you communicate a work culture that’s attractive to ambitious and talented female candidates? The language you use – in your job ads, LinkedIn pages and website – says so much about your company culture. This is so important to attracting women who want to feel valued and supported.
Textio, an augmented writing platform, has discovered that the inclusion of certain words in job ads can lead to fewer women applying. According to the research, the average job ad contains twice as many masculine-tone words, such as ‘enforcement’ and ‘fearless’ than feminine-tone phrases, such as ‘transparent’ and ‘in touch with’.
You might also need to challenge some gender and age related stereotypes in your recruiting and onboarding teams. Do they need training to bring their interviewing skills up to date? Research from the Longevity Forum revealed that ageism in the recruitment process begins at age 40 for women (men don’t fare much better at 45).
Offering a structured programme of coaching and mentoring is a big attraction to returners who may feel they’ve lost touch with workplace practices. Lack of support and career development opportunities are often why women returning to work feel they don’t fit in – and, ultimately, leave. On-going communication and honest feedback from a career coach or mentor can fill this void.
The business case for greater gender equality is more compelling than ever. Put simply, smart leaders know it makes sense for their teams to mirror their customer base. Helping women navigate their return to work is one of the best ways to achieve this.
My final big rallying cry for UK businesses is this: please stop viewing career breaks as negative. We should be celebrating women – and men – who are looking to return to work. They’re a breath of fresh air and brilliant role models.