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.


The 50 Year Career

With the retirement age soon to go up to 68, The 50-year career is becoming a reality. What are the challenges we face and will they affect men and women differently? 

Liz Sewell is the Director of Belina: Get Ready for Work, a programme that supports women into employment, enterprise and training across London

With Brexit, the gig economy, stagnating wages and low productivity dominating the employability headlines one of the biggest changes seems to be taking place in the background. That is the extension of all our working lives. For young people leaving school this summer they are likely to be working for a minimum of fifty years before they are entitled to their pension. For Women this is an even bigger change as they had previously been able to retire at 60.

Fifty years is a long time to look ahead and make predictions, so let’s look back. Someone starting work fifty years ago, in 1967, might have expected a career in one industry, with many expecting a job for life. Most women would have not expected to work full time for all their working lives. Families were bigger, first time mothers were younger. Going on maternity leave was more likely to mean years rather than months and a return to work would as likely be part-time. Most women’s careers were shorter, and more fragmented.

Women starting work in 2017 will be better educated, they will be older when they have their first child, likely to have fewer children in their life time. Their longer working lives should enable them to participate more in the workforce, and gain ground in terms of pay equality as child rearing takes up a smaller percentage of their working lives.

But we need to be looking at the effects of this longer career on all women. At Belina we work with women, mainly mothers and often single mothers. Our cohort is usually a long way away from work. What they want from their working life is flexibility – something that allows them to take care of their responsibilities as parents as well as earning money. For many professionals that is just what IT has done – allowed them to mold their work around their lives. But for people in low-wage jobs, where they need to be present, like retail, care or cleaning, IT has not delivered them flexibility. These are not jobs that can be done over the internet. We know it is these women who account for many of the families where someone is working, but they are still living in poverty.

Work offers independence, increases confidence and provides an opportunity to maintain a lifestyle of choice.  We do, however, need to ensure that the right type of work is available. we need to challenge the gig economy and encourage organisations to look at what society needs and not allow it to be structured solely for the benefit of the new disrupter organisations like Uber, Deliveroo and Amazon – great as they are at creating new ways of working.

Making jobs that appeal and work well for men and women caring for their children should be a priority in the millennium age.  It is all of society’s responsibility to nurture and grow our young people into happy, creative and responsible adults if we want our society to thrive. It is in everybody’s interests to create an environment for people to be able to combine family and caring roles with work that helps them thrive as a unit.

But for many families it is not just childcare that is going to take up their time, care for the elderly is becoming a growing part of family life.

It’s clear that now we’re living in the era of the 50-year career that we should all be doing more to make work “work” for men and women, but it is also true that whilst women continue to take the main responsibility for caring, specialist support and specialist knowledge of women, mothers, lone parents and elder-carers remains crucial.



Unlike lots of people on employability programmes most women don’t have a barrier to working. Most women want to work but can find it difficult due to having external considerations such as caring responsibilities for children or relatives.  Women can quite often experience breaks in their work patterns too which means there can be gaps in their skills and training and they can struggle with their confidence due to being away from the workplace for a length of time.

Here are 10 things you should be aware of and some suggestions for how to support women into employment:

1. Importance of flexible working – Caring for children, even in the 21st century, is still mainly women’s work. So Mothers with younger children often want to work part-time, term-time and are not willing to travel far because time spent travelling takes time out of working or caring. Part of the job of employability staff is to encourage parents to be flexible about the flexible work they want. Looking at working perhaps full time for two days, weekend or evening work, or even overnight.

Most parents who want to work will need to consider before or after school activities and work out what they want to do in the holidays. Sharing care within their own family, with other families as well as formal care is part of the patchwork people need to put together. Other caring responsibilities fall particularly on women in their 40s, 50s and 60s. 1 in 4 women aged 50-64 has caring responsibilities for older or disabled loved ones. Women aged 45-54 are more than twice as likely as other carers to have reduced working hours as a result of caring responsibilities. Women are also more likely to be ‘sandwich’ carers – caring for young children and elderly parents at the same time.

Carers UK research on sandwich carers and the workplace showed that women were four times more likely than men to have given up work because of multiple caring responsibilities.  It helps for Advisers to understand this and appreciate the need for women who have caring responsibilities to be in employment that allows them to be flexible.

2. Effective signposting – Many women who are looking for work on employability programmes are lone parents. There are around 2million lone parents in the UK and around 90% are women1. Lone Parents make up 11% of JSA claimants and those on income support in UC areas must get ready for work once their youngest child is three.

For women who have recently become lone parents it can be a scary time for them and they need to know they are not alone and they can get help from a range of support groups for advice and to share their experiences.  Gingerbread.org.uk provides expert advice and practical support and is a good place to start.

3. Promote the benefits of working – There are many reasons why women should be encouraged to work. Work helps to build self-worth and self- esteem, offers personal and financial independence, the opportunity to lead by example and a sense of fulfilment. Women need support to stretch their imaginations about what they CAN do. They need to understand that even though working 10am – 2pm fits in with their family life they should explore all their options and try to make provisions in order to reap the benefits of a more fulfilling career.

4. Practicalities of working – The cost of housing is an issue for everyone now and the benefits cap has added to the problem for many people. There is a lot of work that can be done to help support people who want to stay where they want to live but they need to also understand that sometimes this is not possible if they really can’t afford to live there. Looking at in-work benefits and whether the customer would be better off working can be an incentive to help support them into work.

5. Understand the pitfalls – Now with Universal Credit women need help to understand where they stand with regards to their benefits if they do start work. The issues around Universal Credit waiting times can create a huge problem for women, especially if they have young dependents. They need to know that any in-work benefits they receive will enable them to pay for childcare and other associated costs of working such as travel and clothes. Using a benefits calculator such as Policy in Practice’s Benefit and Budgeting Calculator or the Turn2us online calculator can help women to find out what they are entitled to but they need to factor in what would happen if their benefits are delayed.

6. Help them to be prepared – Some parents worry about how they will fit everything in, there are still only 24 hours in a day! Help them to understand that though they will need to organise some things differently, they will likely find that they actually get more done when they go back to work. Practical timesaving tips from parents can help.

7. Improve employability skills – Many women have been away from the workplace for quite some time if they have had more than one child. This can often present a practical issue that their skills, knowledge and training is just not up to scratch. Rather than just take the first job they are offered or seek low-level employment, women need to feel supported to seek a job they actually want to do and then look at the skills they need to achieve it. Taking the wrong job can be traumatic if it doesn’t work out and can severely affect a person’s motivation.

8. Build confidence and self-esteem – When someone’s been away from the workplace for a long time it can have a damaging effect on their confidence which in turn affects motivation to work as they feel it’s just too difficult and that they lack what it takes to get a job. Women need to see that if they’ve had children and brought up a family then they can certainly manage a job and they need to understand that the skills they have gained as mothers are incredibly useful and transferrable.

There are significant skills and talents that women can bring to the workplace. Women are notoriously proficient in multi-tasking, they typically have strong nurturing skills suited to personal and team development; they do better in achieving qualifications and they are extremely good at adapting to change.  Women should be valued, nurtured and supported to reach their own independent goals in life of which employment can play a key role. They need to analyse their skills, needs, strengths and passion to help them find out the relevant information they need to seek the job that is right for them, their family and their future.

9. Don’t be afraid of getting it wrong – Many people on unemployment programmes can be reflectors, they worry about what might happen. Most women are quite pragmatic and good at getting what they need for themselves and their families. This is a strength and they should be encouraged to take risks but they should be supported in doing so. The best way to do this is for them to speak to other people who have taken risks and learned from their experiences. Group sessions and motivational training programmes are a great way to do this and to help women build support networks with people in a similar position to them.

10. Engaging employers – Most people have some barriers to employment but its providing solutions to those barriers and then communicating those solutions to the right employers that matters. Employers need to be properly engaged and Advisers need to broker professional employer relationships to overcome barriers and promote the benefits of employing women. Making jobs that actually appeal and work well for women should be a priority in the millennium age.

It is in everybody’s interests to create an environment for people to be able to combine family and caring roles with work that helps them thrive as a unit. Whilst the gig economy and zero contract hours enables flexibility not all employers offer these terms and, often they can be poorly paid with no guaranteed income. Women should be made aware of all of their employment options and even consider self-employment so they can decide what works best for them.


1 and 2 ONS (2016) Families and households, 2016. Table 1.



Employers told – Mums-R-Great!

Building confidence and developing employability skills

Get Ready for Work at Cranford Park Academy,
Belina – a partner in the SWEET Project AND FAMILY WORKS

August 2017bbo_grantholder_logo

This group is made up of mums from the school who want to get back to work. Belina is working together with the group to develop confidence and to help them understand how they can build on their existing skills to get back to work. Before we prepare formal CVs we do an activity whereby we put the parents into groups and ask them them to prepare a poster for employers that promotes the skills and characteristics of Mothers.

IMG_7734Mums R Greatest – or Umbrella ella ella …

The first group showed a mum whose skills are represented by a large umbrella that is made up of all the tasks she undertakes to care for her family and keep them safe (and dry).


IMG_7736All in one – Get a Mum!

The second group showed the transferable skills Mums have – shopper, tutor, driver, that make her a fantastic Personal Life Assistant


IMG_7735Service with a smile

With her big smile and hands, the third group made clear that Mums are multi-talented, super skilled and nurturing.

Having the chance to work together and think about their skills and characteristics in relation to what employers need enables the parents to talk about all the things they do already and consider how an employer might value them. As we move on to the more formal part of the session mums are already feeling more confident about what they can achieve and how they can look at the jobs on offer and tailor their existing skills to each role.


Working with local partners

The success of the programme has come  in great part from the partnership developed with the supportive and insightful Family Support Worker at the School, who has facilitated getting the parents to the group through one to one activity and putting publicity out to parents.


Sweet participants – leadership

Anila Saif, Sweet participant, who attended our GRoW programme in the Spring at the Macmillan Children’s Centre is now working with the parents as part of the Belina team – helping them to prepare their CVs and advising them on local courses and activities. Her strong local knowledge and personal experience of getting back to work whilst having four children under ten (including two under three) has made her a role model for parents on the new GRoW programme.

Meet the New Belina Grow Team


Here we are:  ready to support women across London get ready for work.

What makes us different? – We live our programme every day  – we are women who want to help other women combine work and family life. Our commitment is to ensure that we support people to get the best for both their family and their career. Together we work on four ESF funded projects in West and South London.

Introducing the team

From left to right

Anila works in West London on engagement – going out to schools, adult education centres, and children’s centres. With four children under ten she knows just what it is like to be a busy mum and work. Anila attended a Belina Grow programme at the MacMillan Children’s Centre in Hillingdon before joining the organisation in June. ‘I thought it would be too difficult to combine getting a job with bringing up my family, but it isn’t. I work full out part time and still have the time I need to be with my family.’ 

Isabel has just finished her degree at Oxford University and is doing a part-time work placement looking at engaging large employers to support our participants.

Heather is our comms wiz looking to see how we can use social and old school media to engage with partners and participants. As a communications consultant she works with different organisations sharing her expertise combining this with her family life.

Ahila is taking on the Administration – making sure we don’t just meet our targets – we get the paper work done too. If you work on ESF funded projects you will understand why this is important. She helps to run the Empowering Tamil Women Project in Croydon and attended a Belina Grow programme.

Mercedes worked with Belina for five years and remains as a Senior Facilitator. Mercedes has helped support participants with the most complex needs move forwards. She attended a Belina Grow programme in Islington in 2012, with her son than aged three and soon joined Liz as the company’s first employee. She has been a bedrock of the organisations development. “I just want to get our there and support people – I love our group sessions where we can share our ideas and help each other”

Liz is our Director and works across our four programmes in London. She set up Belina ten years ago and is delighted to be working with all these amazing women. ‘I always wanted Belina to be a model of how women can work and bring up their family and this group is showing that it can be done.’

Bismi is working in South London on engagement and understanding what women from BAME communities want to do and how to help them get ready to work. She is part of the Empowering Tamil Women group and attended the Belina Grow programme there. She has already developed our work with local schools as a parent volunteer.

Abigail, who took the picture, is working on employer engagement and supporting people into work in South London. She joined in May 2017 and is helping us focus on what employers want and helping our candidates prepare their applications and interviews.



August 2017bbo_grantholder_logo

Boosting Confidence and Self Esteem is Key to Empowering Tamil Women

A key element of Belina’s Get Ready For Work  approach is to link with local groups and organisations to help women build their confidence and self esteem and support them into suitable, sustainable employment.  One of these organisations in Croydon is Empowering Tamil Families which specialise in providing practical and social support services to the Asian community and  is making a huge practical difference to local people’s lives.

Empowering Tamil Families is run by Parent Support Worker and Health Champion Yoga Jeyasuntaram and her Positive Parenting and Positive Thinking Workgroup operates each week at Broad Green Library in Croydon.  The Group has been working together since January 2017 to provide a wide range of support to local Tamil women offering advice on issues from relationships, parenting, finance, budgeting and domestic abuse to assertive communication, volunteering, practical skills and employment opportunities.

Yoga explains “We set up the Positive Parenting and Positive Thinking Workgroup in response to local demand from women who said they needed some kind of class or support group to help them improve their skills.  Many of the women we work with are hugely talented and possess really useful skills that would be of value to employers but they need help to improve their English speaking, communication and presentation skills. Through the funding we have received from Croydon Council’s Asian Resource Centre we have been able to offer a range of support that includes partnering with Belina Consulting’s Get Ready for Work Programme to deliver end to end support to improve these women’s education, skills, knowledge, confidence, performance, employability and ultimately their life chances and the life chances of their families.”

Adults and parents enrolling on The Positive Parenting and Positive Thinking Workgroup are first given support with their English reading, writing and spoken English.  The GRoW Programme then delivers specialist support that focuses on raising women’s self esteem and confidence and helping them to understand the skills, talents and capabilities they have and how they can put them to use in employment.  GRoW also delivers training to help people prepare for finding a job, such as cv writing and communication, presentation and interview skills.

20170314_110926 (1)

Some of the jewellery and clothing made by our WorkGroup parents

Yoga said “In Tamil culture women are generally not expected to work and are encouraged to stay at home to look after their children.  When they come to our Workgroups they can see the skills they have are of real value and that they can improve their lives through work.  We have had around 40 people on our courses and the feedback we have received is that they are growing their self esteem and building their confidence and motivation. We are also very pleased to have seen two of our customers find work through our support.  We have a volunteer called who works with us who is still working at the age of 65. She is extremely talented and has skills in sewing, tailoring, jewellery making, cooking, beauty therapy and child care.  Many of the women we work with have similar skills and we are helping them understand that these skills are highly regarded and can be very employable”.


Ahila Mathew works with Yoga and Liz providing mainly administrative support “Most of the women who come to our courses really struggle with speaking and understanding English and so part of my job is to translate for them and to help them with filling in forms. We also have an English volunteer called Irene Jorke who does great work in supporting our Spoken English class. The feedback we are getting is that it is making a big difference to improving their lives. They enjoy coming and taking part in the group sessions and the 1:1 sessions they have with Liz are really useful.  As I am supporting them by translating to English they are able to get their point across, be understood and ask the kind of questions they haven’t had the opportunity to ask before” said Ahila

Liz Sewell, Belina Consulting Director and Founder of GRoW, said “The work that Yoga, Ahila and the Empowering Tamil Women team are doing in Croydon is invaluable. Engaging with people in the right way to help them understand they have talents and skills is the first step to improving their confidence, motivation and self esteem.  This ground work is absolutely paramount to helping people prepare for employment and we are delighted to partner with such a great organisation that recognises the importance of providing this type of support and realising that it is central to improving people’s employability. We look forward to continuing our work together and to help support more local Tamil women into suitable employment”.

Find out how the GRoW Programme helps women get ready for work here

This GRoW project is funded by the European Social Fund and Building Better Opportunities.

Kennedy Scott launch  their new Help to Work project – Belina part of the team

Belina is delighted to be part of the team working with Kennedy Scott on their the new Help to Work project.

Help to Work is a highly innovative back-to-work project that aims to tackle worklessness amongst the most disadvantaged in the Coast to Capital LEP region. This includes Croydon, Brighton and Hove, Worthing  and parts of West Sussex and Surrey. The project will support a wide range of participants including lone parents, those with language barriers and individuals with disabilities and complex health conditions.

The three year project will support 800 individuals and marks an important milestone for Kennedy Scott as it includes the launch of their new Help to Work marketplace (e-Circle of Support), which is an extension of the organisation’s highly successful Circle of Support model.

Alongside traditional employability and skills training, participants on the programme will have access to Kennedy Scott’s e-Circle of Support. A ‘shop for support’ online marketplace, revolutionary within the sector. This brings together in one place – skills, wellbeing and employment services, specifically for their customers. Participants are given a £100 budget to spend on products and services that can help support them towards employment, giving them responsibility over their journey back to work. It include things like retail vouchers for interview clothing, wellbeing support, courses and qualifications.

Participants will also be offered traditional employability and skills training which will include support in CV writing, confidence and motivation building classes, condition management advice and a job brokering service.

Commenting on the start of the contract, Teresa Scott, CEO of Kennedy Scott said:

“I am delighted that Kennedy Scott are now expanding their reach across the Coast to Capital LEP region, in this innovative programme for the most marginalised in our society.

“We have, in conjunction with our local partners, developed a really innovative e-Circle of Support marketplace, which empowers the customer to take ownership of their development and provides a state of the art tailored, digital support platform from which they can choose a wide range of local training interventions.

“It will change the face of the employability support for the future and ensure that we are providing the best possible opportunities for our customers, where it matters most, in their local area.”