Returning to work after a career break

We talk to Julianne Miles, co-founder of Women Returners – an organisation which has been instrumental in changing attitudes towards people who have taken a career break and are looking to return to the world of work.

Returner Programme


Women Returners is an organisation which has been instrumental in changing attitudes towards people who have taken a career break and are looking to return to the workplace.  

In just seven years they have influenced both practice and policy towards returners generally, paving the way for the kind of initiatives that are flourishing now.

Julianne Miles co-founded Women Returners in 2012 with Katerina Gould who has since stepped back from leadership of the business. Both had been supporting women who had taken career breaks to get back to work for many years as coaches.

A Chartered Psychologist, Julianne had become increasingly frustrated about the lack of opportunities and support available to professional women returning to work after a long career break.  Even highly qualified and experienced returners faced many challenges.

Together with a loss of professional confidence, they rarely made it through traditional recruitment routes unless they found a role through their professional and personal networks.

This had led to a huge waste of female talent. “Women Returners started both with a desire to change society and a recognition that there was a strong business case for companies to access this diverse talent pool,” says Julianne.

Professional network

Women Returners started by supporting individuals, creating a free online returner community, the Women Returners Professional Network, which now numbers in the thousands.

Julianne and Katerina had been watching developments in the US, where returnships were first started in the financial sector, and recognised that these provided a supportive bridge between organisations and returning professionals.

In 2014, they set up Women Returners for Employers to bring returner programmes into the UK, focusing on the strong business and societal case and the availability of an untapped talent pool.

The timing worked well as there was increasing company interest in increasing diversity and a pick-up of recruitment following the 2008 recession. Several journalists got on board and through media coverage Women Returners raised awareness and understanding and started to build the UK returnship market.

Things really started to take off in 2015 as more and more forward-thinking UK employers launched returner programmes and saw just how impressive the talent pool is. The idea of returner programmes started to become reality.

From the early days, Women Returners was very keen that returner initiatives should not be focused just on financial services. Julianne quickly looked to get other sectors on board, partnering in early 2015 on a programme with Thames Tideway.

“I was keen to show that a returnship could work in a construction project building a sewer under the Thames, to demonstrate that it could work in any sector,” says Julianne.

Gender pay gap

She adds that the business case for returner initiatives has only grown stronger since then, with the increasing focus on addressing the gender pay gap and the more widespread understanding of the benefits of diversity of both gender and experience.

“There is so much evidence about the positive effects of diversity on innovation and productivity. There seems to be a real momentum now within UK businesses to take action and bringing in returners is increasingly being recognised a piece of the solution. The timing worked out well for us,” states Julianne.

Although the majority of people Women Returners works with are women who have taken a career break to look after children, Julianne is keen to emphasise that returner programmes attract candidates with a wide variety of reasons for taking a break, including caring for elderly relatives, ill-health and relocation.

Women Returners offers consulting expertise on tailoring returner programmes to work for returners and the organisation. They also provide their Career Returners Coaching Programme for returners and training for returner interviewers and line managers.

Different models

They have developed different models for returner programmes, including returnships and supported hiring (bringing returners into permanent roles) and they partner with employers to adapt a programme to their needs.

“Some employers and returners like returnships – they like the idea of a supportive cohort and providing a soft landing; others prefer direct hire, which usually works well for SMEs,” says Julianne.

“We want to create structures that work for the smallest firm up to a large international corporate.”

Julianne says she understands the challenges faced by employers in integrating people with a long career gap. She does not criticise employers for hiring few returners in the past, saying it is important to work with them to create solutions for the future.

New developments

In the last few years Women Returners has continued to move into new industries and sectors, including the public sector and also cross-country regional programmes on law and finance.

Women Returners has also worked with the Government Equalities Offices Returners Unit to co-produce, with Timewise, a best practice guide for employers running returner programmes (available on Gov.UK). They have also co-written a toolkit for returners.

The future

Julianne, who was named Working Mums Champion at the 2018’s Top Employer Awards,  is excited about the future for Women Returners as momentum continues to build. Women Returners has expanded outside the UK, into Europe. “The challenge of reintegrating people on career break back into the workforce at suitable levels is an issue all around the world,” says Julianne.

“In many other countries, there is also an untapped talent pool of qualified people, mainly women, who have taken a career break and who struggle to get back to work.”

Women Returners now has a fast-growing team, based around England, in Scotland and in Ireland. Julianne admits that there are challenges to growing a small business with big ambitions, but she sees strong potential for growth.

She says the most important ingredient for a successful returner initiative is that employers see it as a means of accessing a high-calibre talent pool and position it as such throughout the organisation, getting support from both top and middle management.

Having a flexible work culture is a major advantage for returner employers but is not essential, as flexible working is not a priority for all returners.

Nevertheless, flexibility is an important topic that Women Returners raises in terms of broadening the talent pool and effectively supporting returners who have other external commitments to achieve a sustainable work-life balance.

Ripple effect

Numbers on returner programmes may be small, but Julianne says they can have a “ripple effect”, particularly in more traditional sectors, or in technical or operational areas where there are few women at mid to senior management level.

A returner programme can act as a catalyst for wider structural changes – for instance, raising the topic of offering flexibility at point of hire or considering a less ‘tick-box’ approach to recruitment.

“Returnships are more about quality than quantity,” says Julianne, “and we find that they can start to open the minds of hiring managers and raise questions about the limitations of certain hiring processes.”

She adds that if we are all going to be working for 50 years there will be more and more people wanting or needing to take career breaks at some point during their working life.

“This is very much tied to the future of work agenda,” she says. “There are a combination of factors causing career breaks.

The conversation started with enabling mothers with small children to return to work, but it is now much broader and it will continue to evolve as people become less worried about the effect of taking breaks on their career.”

Julianne adds: “When we started no-one was talking about career returners. This topic was not on the radar of employers or the Government.

Faced with limited opportunities, thousands of talented and experienced women had written themselves off and lost confidence in picking up their careers. Now we have hundreds of inspiring success stories of women (and men) who have returned stronger than ever.

“They are our pioneers and are becoming mentors for new groups of returners. Many companies are now running returner programmes regularly and integrating them into their annual recruitment processes, and there is a returners unit in the Government Equalities Office.

There is still a long way to go, but the conversation has definitely changed and we have established strong foundations on which to build.”

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