Women Returners to Work and what the sector can do to help

At the ERSA Conference in December I attended the ‘Returners to Work’ Breakout session hosted by Elizabeth Taylor, CEO of Bootstrap Enterprises, Caitlin O’Kelly of the Government Equalities Office and Rosie Ferguson, CEO of Gingerbread.  It was inspiring to hear from these women, all committed to making a difference to other people’s lives and I felt very proud to be part of an industry that, despite facing uncertain times with Brexit and with unknown challenges ahead, are driving forward and still thinking of new and innovative ways we can help improve outcomes for people and their families.

Returning to work can be a very daunting prospect, not least because as a society we do not always make it easy for people, particularly women, to return to work. Women are still often the prime carers for children and/or elderly relatives and 1 in 4 families is headed by a single parent. This can cause obstacles and barriers to finding suitable employment and there are many considerations they need to make first such as:

  • How do I access suitable and flexible childcare?
  • What if my child is ill?
  • What do I do about school holidays?
  • How will it affect my benefits?
  • What if English isn’t my first language?

These are all important factors that women need to address and as employment specialists our job is to help support women in finding solutions to these problems and taking them through the practical steps.  This is often the easy part!

Often a bigger barrier many women can have when thinking of returning to work is the way they feel about working.  When women are not working they can often feel guilty, isolated and with a reduced sense of worth.  Caring for children or relatives often means that their education or training has been interrupted which can lead to reducing their options for work or study. Society even labels people who cannot work due to unpaid caring responsibilities as ‘economically inactive’, suggesting they are simply doing nothing of any value.

As a sector we have a job to do to help women build their confidence and self-esteem. Not only do women often feel guilty about not working, they often feel guilty about wanting or needing to work too, due to the change this can have on their family unit.  Belina specialise in confidence building training for returners to work but things like work experience and volunteering can help too.

As a sector we also need to promote the concept of work and the benefits it can bring.  The reason I choose to do the job I do is because I firmly believe that women are better off in work than they are out of work but there is still much to do to engage employers and help them adapt and adjust to improve their offering.

Women have a tremendous amount to offer the workforce in terms of their experience, their resilience and their ability to multi-task. Employers have much to benefit from this but they also need to be conscious of the fact that, as main carers their children’s welfare will always be their primary concern.

In her podcast with FE News, Gingerbread’s Rosie Ferguson made some really important points and suggestions about ways employers can help returners to work highlighting flexibility as one of the areas employers should address and how they can re-assess roles to see if they could be more flexible to accommodate returners to work or parents.  She also mentioned how offering schemes such as the Childcare Deposit scheme can be really attractive to returners to work.

Flexibility in the workplace is key to attracting women returners to work but whilst legislation is in place for people to ask for flexibility this is often quite a difficult thing to do in practice. Employers can help by raising the question themselves in interviews and speaking to women about how they might be best accommodated to fit in with childcare. This alleviates the need for the interviewee to bring the question up themselves and to feel they are being a ‘difficult employee’ from day one.

By thinking through a role in advance Employers can also save themselves money.  Not all roles have to be 35 hours a week, they could potentially be done between 10 and 3 each day.  Employers need to be more creative.

Gingerbread are championing the idea of employers setting up a Deposit Guarantee Scheme where employers lend the upfront cost of childcare in the way they would a Travelcard loan. This would be a great help in taking away some of the initial barriers to returning to work.

It is about time society recognised the contribution women returners to work have to offer and the many skills they have acquired as parents. There are many things employers can do to better accommodate women returners to work and we need them to believe in the benefits they can bring them.  More importantly, we need women to believe in themselves too and the benefits that the right kind of work can bring to them and their families.


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