women returning to work

Women Returners

By Jenny Daisley from the Springboard Consultancy, a personal development consultancy

Leaving employment for a few months, or even a few years, forms an important stage in the career of most women. But time away from the workplace can be disruptive and people re-entering the workforce often feel intimidated by the changes that take place, even over a short period.

Women need to make sure that when they return to work they still have their self- confidence, have kept in touch with issues in the workplace and have updated their skills.

‘Women need to look factually at what they have done. Women who have taken a career break often feel they have no confidence or skills. They need to look at what they have done as a mother or carer at home,’ says Jenny Daisley, founder of women’s training specialist, Springboard Consultancy.

Before you leave work, check your options. Some companies offer internal refresher courses or offer short-term placements and training days during a career break, designed to help staff keep in touch. Whether you intend to return to the same company or not, make sure you know where you stand in terms of company pay and benefits, such as pensions and private medical insurance.

What is the norm for your industry? 

Some professions are better than others at helping staff back into work. Often these are either female-dominated jobs or in industries facing chronic staff shortages. Discover what is the norm for your industry, and try talking to other women who may have suffered similar problems.

Women in science and engineering, for example, felt there was a need for a women’s support organisation, and started setting up local groups across the country.

‘When we first thought about setting up the Association of Women in Science and Engineering (AWiSE), it was given a small mention in New Scientist. There was no contact address, just my name in an article. I got half a dozen calls from women who wanted to set up local groups, who had gone out of their way to track me down,’ says Dr Joan Mason who founded the group.

AWiSE, though still small, has helped to influence national policy and to set better standards for women in academia and in science and engineering-related professions.

Networking will help

Choosing a network that suits you is important. Many professions run their own groups, ranging from IT to publishing. Some of these target women wanting to enter the profession, but also provide support and advice on training issues, organise events and provide mentoring services for women. A number of networks also attempt to influence policy-making at a national or local level.

‘Joining a network was an amazing experience for me,’ says Hilary Leslie, chair of the London branch of Network, a national organisation. ‘Network serves many purposes. It supports women returners, mothers and those who have been made redundant, a very diverse group of people.’

Sector-based networks:

A number of city and county councils run local networking groups, open to women from any professional background. Contact your local council for details.

Prominent national networks include: 

  • Women Returners Network can be contacted on 01245 263 796. It provides help, advice and contacts for women returning to work after a career break.
  • Network is a national group which has regular meetings. So far this year, the London group has organised talks by Germaine Greer and Baroness Christine Crawley, chair of the National Women’s Commission. Network can be contacted on netwomen@london.enterprise-plc.com or 01483 720 278.

Tips for successful networking

  • Get involved. Most groups are welcoming and supportive – that’s why they exist. Women’s networks are reputed to be more informal than mixed groups.
  • Do it yourself. If there isn’t a suitable network in your area, place an ad in the local paper and start one up. Some networks such as the Women Returners Network offer advice and help on how to begin a group. Alternatively start one up internally – HSBC and BT for example both have very good internal networks for women.
  • Follow up contacts. Phone people up a day or two after meeting them, to keep the contact fresh.
  • Organise events. Host a dinner, or a speaker meeting, and bring together people from diverse backgrounds who might spark ideas off each other.

Talk to human resources 

If you want to re-enter a profession, talk to the human resources departments in firms that you might consider working for. Legislation is increasingly on the side of the working woman, and proposals for changes to the maternity leave and working time regulations may make it illegal for companies not to consider flexible alternatives to a nine-to-five working day.

It is getting easier for women to return to work, employers are more open to staff leaving and re-entering the job market and flexible working is easier in the UK than anywhere else in Europe. The main lesson is that women who push for what they want and assert themselves in the workplace, can probably get it.

Top tips on returning to work: 

  • Before you leave for your break, find out about schemes run by your company. Check out how you stand in relation to existing benefits, particularly pensions.
  • Assess your skills, looking objectively at those you have and those that are lacking. Where can you use your transferable skills? What skills are in demand?
  • Take a general returners course at a local FE college and a refresher course in your specialism.
  • Talk to other people. Learn from their experiences and contacts.
  • Prepare. Look at the advantages to the company of recruiting you on a flexible contract, including issues such as staff retention, motivation or overheads.
  • Decide what working hours you can manage, then negotiate with prospective employers to get those hours. Make sure they know of your other commitments.
  • Be flexible and realistic. Some jobs require a nine-to-five commitment but can be shared over the week. Others can be done from home, others require national or international travel – assess the requirements of the job you want and measure it against your own requirements. See flexible working.
  • Organise childcare and have a back-up plan, in case initial arrangements fall through.