Returnships: Maternity Leave & Solving the Career-Break Penalty

People leave their jobs or go on breaks for a whole manner of reasons. And, for women, in particular, maternity leave is among the most common examples. 

Once out of the workforce for any significant period, however,  women often find great difficulty in finding new employment, or indeed find themselves out of the loop with current trends, training and the requisite knowledge necessary to re-enter the workplace. 

This cost on the part of women returners is called the career break penalty

The ramifications of the career break penalty are further pronounced when women have a second or third child, contributing to their misfortune when trying to re-enter the workforce and lasts long into their careers. 

Let’s delve a little deeper...

Addressing the career-break problem for women in the UK

Data from professional services giant, PWC, states that as of 2017, there were approximately 27,000 women in the UK on a career-break from the labour force. Of this, more than half were likely to resume work in a lower-skilled position than when they left. This is a pressing issue, as it handicaps women who choose to take a break from their career to focus on other aspects of their personal life. 

The impact of this cannot be understated, and the ramifications of this career break last long into the future. The same study showed that as a result of this ‘demotion’, career breaks resulted in a future earnings reduction of somewhere between 12-32% for those same women

Many women returners may wish to switch to flexible work after maternity leave, but this option is not offered by many employers. Even where it is available, the penalties with respect to remuneration and career progression are sizable. Further data from PWC reporting demonstrates that there are approximately 29,000 UK women that will very likely encounter a barrier to re-entry due to being inhibited by the lack of availability of flexible roles, and a plethora of roles that are simply incompatible with child care commitments. 

Plainly put; maternity leave appears to be a great barrier to equality in the labour market. 


Support in short supply for returning mothers...

Gender equality in the workplace is a persistent problem and one which requires some much-needed attention and government intervention. 

It stands to reason that a fear of penalty due to a career break is felt by all workers, regardless of gender, however, this does not play out equally, as, when combined with pervasive gender discrimination, the career break becomes a great divider in status, wealth, earnings and career progression between men and women, with women being far less likely to enjoy the same successes enjoyed by their male counterparts. 

A representative from The Women’s Business Council, (founded in 2012 to advise the UK government on how women’s contribution to economic growth can improve), stated recently that “business can and should be doing more to help mothers when returning to work, including an effective return to work procedures, work experience for mothers taking career breaks and talent management schemes”.

Furthermore, a Yougov survey found that 50% of workers believed that women received fewer opportunities to re-enter the workforce. And, another 20% strongly believed that executives in the corporate sector did not do nearly enough to help women re-enter the workforce. 


Equality is the game

The Equal Pay Act in 1970 brought about sweeping legislative change to workplace equality and has been instrumental in affecting positive change for women’s opportunities in the labour market. 

To respond effectively to the needs and requirements of women returning to work, public policy should become more nuanced and adopt an approach focused on solving the career break penalty. 

Modern employers have a responsibility to design jobs that allow employees to balance paid and unpaid commitments while fully using and rewarding their talents and skills. 

This responsibility also raises additional questions about rethinking notions of so-called normal working patterns and practices, to shape work and improve opportunities, pay and progression for an ever more diverse & equal workforce, as- for many, normal working conditions are incompatible with the trials and stresses of everyday life. 


Unleashing the value of skilled women in the UK

In the 2017 calendar year, census data stated that there were more than 2 million women who were ‘presently economically inactive as a result of caring commitments’. 


That’s a staggering amount of untapped potential. 


Despite a high level of training and experience across the board, these women, in turn, get overlooked in favour of applicants with a more consistent career trajectory. 


Dr Jo Ingold, Associate Professor of Human Resource Management and Public Policy at Leeds University Business School, stated that more companies are thinking about investing in returnships, which has been driven by the need to attract and retain talent and address skills shortages, as well as to further the diversity agenda.


“Businesses have found value in building a more diverse workforce because they want to reflect their customer base or because it has a positive impact on the bottom line,” Dr Ingold said further,  “Returnship programmes can be one way of creating opportunities to be more diverse; for example, by getting more women into senior roles.”




Unfortunately, even in this day and age, the onus for child-bearing and care typically falls on women. Returnship programmes aim to upend this outdated practice and give women returners the confidence, skills and opportunity they need to succeed after a career break. With a staggering 85% of UK employees not aware of back-to-work schemes, now is high time to think about whether your company is doing enough, and what kind of programmes you can offer women returners!