Long read: returnships – let’s expand the argument beyond working mothers

It can be challenging for women to return to work after maternity leave or bringing up families.

Yet in Denmark, some 85% of mothers go back to work after having children. One way to ease the transition back into work, especially for senior women, is the relatively new concept of returnships – paid programmes of up to ten weeks particularly aimed at women who have left the workforce for at least two years and are ready to return.

According to the recent PwC Women in Work report, female employment levels in the UK stand at just 69%. Increasing this to 74% could increase GDP by a remarkable 9%. Globally, countries with low female employment rates like Mexico and Greece could increase their GDP by almost 30% if they had female employment rates that matched Sweden’s, which has close to 80% engagement.

Devised (and trademarked) by Goldman Sachs in 2008 as a practical way to narrow this employment gap, the concept has now spread to other sectors, with returnships becoming more recognised by HR departments as a viable, constructive and positive way to get women back into work. Returnships are now gaining more traction in the UK too, with the All Party Parliamentary Group on Women and Work recently publishing a report calling for more employers to offer them. So just how practical are returnships as an effective way for employers to break the glass ceiling once and for all?

‘Anything that can add impetus to people who want to come back to work after having children – or for any other reason – is to be applauded,’ says Daryl Fielding, Advisor at The Marketing Academy who, when at Ogilvy & Mather, devised Dove’s ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ – the benefits of which are still being reaped by Dove today. ‘Treating individuals as individuals in the workplace, and having policies to support them when there, is still an imperative,’ she says. ‘People take career breaks for all sorts of reasons, and when they return to work, they need to be supported – whether that’s training, inductions or simply HR support.’

In the industries Fielding has worked in, ‘people are high-earning, ambitious and driven and often don’t take particularly long career breaks. However, many people I know on a personal level would have done things differently had the support been there.’ For example, the costs of childcare can lead people to avoid returning to work until their children are older, Fielding argues, ‘and I think a better structured programme like we’re now seeing the larger employers introduce would really have benefited them. ‘In those industries where wages are perhaps the same as the cost of childcare – it becomes a zero sum game, and that’s not good for anyone.’

Overcoming challenges

What are the problems women face when they return to work after a break? ‘There will be technological changes that they won’t feel comfortable around when they come back,’ Fielding says, before adding that the problems are in fact more cultural than specific changes that have taken place while they were away. ‘I still don’t think it is fully accepted that senior executives take time off to go to speech days, sports days, prize giving, etc. My sense is many more senior women than men will declare it as a reason for not attending a meeting and this shouldn’t be the case – company policies should allow a certain number of days for family occasions.’ Fielding dryly points out that ‘I don’t notice men saying, “it’s my daughter’s sports day.” ’ But they should do. ‘They both go; they just don’t admit it.’

Is family life something that’s only supposed to exist outside the office? ‘Yes, I don’t think family life is considered important enough in the workplace, at whatever level of seniority. It’s acknowledged in theory but people don’t see it through in practice.’ Culture change is still needed, but the good news is that the groundwork for that culture change is in place. ‘The technology we now have is so incredibly enabling. At Vodafone we had a mobile working policy. People weren’t tied to their desk; we wanted people to work where they want to work as long as they do their job.’ For Fielding this is highly enabling in terms of family commitments but there is the caveat that ‘the more senior you get, the more your presence is important; it becomes more difficult to be flexible, the further up the ladder you go.’

Returnships in practice

Sarah Speake is former Strategic Marketing Director at Google. ‘The company offering the returnship needs to be very, very clear about how they communicate to other employees about the nature of the returning staff member,’ she says. ‘Often in this situation is can be hard to build trust. If the organisation hasn’t been spot-on in how they communicate in which parameters the employee is returning, there’s a risk they become perceived as the “favourite child”.’ For Speake, this is an issue after maternity leave and can also be the case with returnships. ‘People around the returner can feel resentful.’

What’s the answer? ‘Greater clarity and support from the organisation – demystify this strange alien concept that someone can come back to a senior position after a period away. In a nutshell, returnships are a great idea but organisations have to be careful that the focus isn’t just on the returner, but on ensuring their colleagues are happy with how they come back.’ Speake is passionate about the development and retention of senior women, but pragmatic about how innovative programmes like returnships need to be handled. ‘In fact,’ she adds, ‘women or indeed men returning are far more likely to work extremely hard and super-efficiently because they are used to a very high level of juggling.’ Often, this isn’t seen inside the organisation – people on returnships have not had time off; rather, they have been doing a similarly demanding job at home. It’s underestimated, and for Speake as well as Daryl Fielding, we need a greater level of transparency about what family life can be like – it’s not something to be hidden away.

Part of the reason returnships are gaining traction is because of an understanding and appreciation by business that offering more flexibility at work means you hold onto strong people. In other words, it’s worth the extra HR administration and associated costs, for the longer-term benefits of ensuring your company keeps its competitive edge. ‘There’s more interest now in job sharing at senior level, for instance,’ Speake says, ‘and that’s changing the way companies think not only about women in the workplace but also how they can add value, whilst catering for their needs as individuals.’ For Speake this is ‘how you can hold on to strong women – why would you let them go?’

An example is the Political Editor at The Guardian who is actually two people. ‘The role is shared by Heather Stewart and Anushka Asthana,’ Speake explains. The appointment saw Asthana proudly saying at the time that the role was ‘a fantastic opportunity to show that a job share at this level can work,’ adding that she hoped it would be ‘a step towards more women and more working parents considering political journalism.’

Businesses moving forward

An example of returnships in action is She’s Back, an initiative started by former Director of Brand and Communication at Deloitte, Lisa Unwin. Working with businesses to promote gender diversity in the consulting industry, Unwin helps companies access talent in women who are coming back to work after an extended break. Talking to MCA, Unwin says that ‘if you want to deliver great solutions for your clients, you need diverse points of view. Even in my own organisation of two it makes a huge difference.’ Two vital elements for Unwin: ‘if you are missing 50% of the population in one team then something is going wrong,’ and ‘firms are starting to struggle to attract female graduates. This will continue to be the case if young women can’t see longevity in a career in consulting.’ Why the need for returnships? ‘We know why we all dropped out,’ she says; ‘to focus our time on our young children. But that didn’t answer the question why we weren’t eventually returning.’

The PwC report Women in Work shows how national economies could be improved by levelling the gap between men and women at work. ‘Research suggests that increasing the number of women in work by just five per cent could create approximately £750m in additional tax revenue,’ says Phil Hall, Head of Public Affairs & Public Policy at AAT. ‘And that’s to say nothing of the social value of returning to work.’ For Hall, returnships are a tremendously positive way to get women back into work ‘and whilst they may not be suitable for all employers, given the boost to employees’ confidence, the potential boost to employers’ productivity and the myriad economic benefits to all parties, they are certainly worth considering.’

As an employer AAT is always keen to put leading initiatives into action rather than merely recommending them, Hall adds. ‘AAT recently signed up to the Women in Finance Charter, we are a signatory to the Prompt Payment Code and earlier this year we were delighted to receive accreditation from the Living Wage Foundation.’ AAT is ‘keen to put our employees first whilst recognising the impact we can have on various other stakeholders; and as a result we are currently exploring the possibility of introducing returnships at AAT.’

70% of AAT’s 140,000 members are women and there are hundreds of inspirational stories to tell. Consider Diana Mikolajewska, a single mother in her early 30s who started her studies with AAT just ten days after the birth of her second child. ‘Within a couple of years Diana had changed jobs and was working as an accounts assistant,’ Hall says. Not long after, she established her own accounting practice. ‘She’s now studying to become a Chartered Accountant.’

Hall also wants all large organisations to play their part, for all employees in caring roles, not just parents. ‘Companies with over 250 employees should have a carers’ policy detailing the support they make available for those with caring responsibilities. They should also look at putting in place paid returner programmes or returnships with guaranteed training, advice, and support.’

The All Party Parliamentary Group has suggested that employers should promote best practice through a flexible working kite mark with official accreditation and assessment to increase flexible working visibility – and actively encourage the uptake of flexible working. However Hall is less supportive of this suggestion, arguing that whilst it seems like a good idea, ‘such an approach is likely to be adopted by good employers who do this sort of thing anyway; rather than changing the behaviour of those that need encouragement to do so.’

Not just for women

Finally, Sarah Speake makes the strong argument that returnships should not just be about women. ‘Returnships are a great idea particularly for women after an extended career break. But this topic always ends up being about women and I don’t think it should be. It should be about wider diversity career breaks.’ There are many reasons people might need to take breaks – significantly, with our lengthening lives, it can be to look after elderly parents, or to care for people are ill – and it’s something that affects both women and men. Indeed, many of the returnships now on offer to women in the UK are also available to men, caring for small children. ‘The diversity issue and the need to multitask always ends up being about working mothers,’ Speake says, ‘but we all have the ability to juggle, and we’ve made our respective choices.’ Returnships are a great way forward, Speake says, ‘but please – let’s expand the argument beyond working mothers.’

Returning to work – key points

  • Prepare well. ‘Many organisations fail spectacularly at re-onboarding women back into the role, even when the break has been only six months to a year,’ says Sarah Speake. Returnships are currently only being offered by ‘a tiny pocket of organisations with them in place as part of the HR system’. A missing link, for Speake, ‘is to make that style of working an accepted part of the culture.’
  • The nature of work is altering. ‘The necessity to be present all the time in the office is changing,’ Daryl Fielding says, ‘and people are more accepting of a fluid working life.’ This is a key advantage for those looking at returnships – you can juggle your life more and be available to pick up children from school (for example) while still committing fully to the job.
  • Families should not be invisible at work. ‘Senior women tend to compartmentalise at work,’ Speake says. ‘Those who don’t climb the ladder so high are perhaps not doing so because they feel guilt – that they don’t feel they’re 100% with their children at home, and don’t feel 100% at work when at work. You have to be able to make that division.’ It is ‘absolutely possible to have a stellar senior career and be a good mother,’ Speake says. ‘But everything has to be in place to make it happen.’

Mark Blayney Stuart is Business Journalist of the Year, Wales Media Awards 2017 and Former Head of Research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

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