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Natalie Bickford: Women are struggling to re-enter the world of work

Women who want to re-enter the world of work after having children are struggling, and business needs to do something about it

My husband and I had dinner with friends recently. The three other ladies there were mothers who had taken 10- to 15-year breaks from their careers to bring up their children. Nothing particularly unusual to this story perhaps. What is interesting, however, is that all three are keen to re-enter the world of work, but none of these highly qualified, experienced professionals are sure how to go about it.

Many of my friends are in similar situations, having followed a familiar track: university, graduate position, climb career ladder, have first child and return to work part-time, have second child and ‘retire’. Admittedly they have been in the fortunate position to have partners whose own career success has allowed them to make the choice to stay at home.

But these women are finding, when the time is right for them to come back to the world of paid employment, it’s a struggle to access the opportunities. Out-of-date networks, anxiety that the world has moved on, and a genuine lack of confidence over their contribution value, has them paralysed in the face of a world they once navigated with ease.

The reality is that we need these women to rejoin the labour market. In the UK we are making limited progress in our quest towards gender balance in leadership teams. Despite political attention on gender diversity over recent years, only 8.6% of the executive directors on FTSE 100 operating boards are women. So we should urgently consider how to get these stay-at-home professional women back, because in our ongoing war for talent here is a large and varied pool of candidates.

The Working Mother Research Institute’s (WMRI) What Moms Choose report talks about the untapped talent of career-oriented mothers. In a survey of more than 3,000 women, over half said that they would rather be working. The research also concludes that career-oriented working mothers are among the most productive people in the US workforce, despite juggling work, family management, and care for older relatives.

According to the WMRI, the three most important factors affecting mothers returning to work are flexible work hours, the ability to use sick leave to care for children, and predictable work hours. At the same time the top factors associated with engagement of working mothers are having confidence in company leaders, being treated fairly at work, and that managers’ actions match their message.

There is much information available to returning mothers, mostly through websites offering advice and guidance – Working Mums, the Talented Ladies Club, Women Returners, to name a few resources. There is training available, mentors and networks to support the agenda. The issue is that this is all about the push and support for the individual. What seems to be fairly absent is the pull from business.

I will be directing the women from that recent dinner to some of these great resources. I will also advise them to seek a mentor, or even better a sponsor, to help them walk the path back to paid work. HR needs to play its part too, perhaps through targeted job advertising for mid-career returners, but definitely through a push on flexible working practices, and perhaps some dedicated development programmes. This is a topic I hadn’t given much thought to, but one that I now see as an opportunity to get ahead of the competition in the race for the best people.

Natalie Bickford is European HR director at Sodexo. She is ranked 18th on the HR Most Influential Practitioners list