The number of women represented in the UK technology sector remains a minority – just 30% in 2021. The stats are even less encouraging when it comes to leadership roles, where women make up just 10%. If these numbers are to change, businesses need to be making real change. There has been a huge focus in the industry on supporting young women and girls looking to break in, but more work must be done to support the women already there.
One of the biggest barriers to women reaching leadership roles is that they are much more likely to take career breaks due to family responsibilities. According to the Office for National Statistics in the last quarter of 2021, 1,400,000 women in the UK were out of work for this reason. This compared to just 253,000 men.
Maternity leave is the most common reason for women taking a career break but family responsibilities can come up at any time throughout a woman’s career – some of which will be unexpected, but others planned. The recent news that the Head of Co-op Food is taking a break from work to support her children through exams is a prime example of this.
For many women, the timing could not be worse in terms of career progression as they are most likely to drop out just as they begin to climb the career ladder. This is particularly acute now as women are increasingly having children at a later age.
Although three in four women intend to return to work after childcare-related breaks, the time spent away can result in a loss of confidence with the knock-on effect being a setback in their career. Supporting women on their return can significantly improve retention and gender diversity rates, as well as significant economic benefits.
With that in mind, here are some tips businesses can implement to support women throughout their career breaks:
Keep in contact
Taking a break from work can be an isolating experience and it’s all too common for women to feel disconnected from their colleagues and their career. Employees should offer support including the opportunity to engage with their co-workers (within the parameters of employment law, of course). This will make their return much less daunting, as the break will have felt less total.
It’s also worth keeping in contact with women who resign from the company for childcare-related reasons. If they ever consider a return to the workplace, they will be much more likely to reach out to a previous employer if the lines of communication have remained open.
Invest in training and support for returning employees
An elongated break from work can result in those returning feeling behind the curve, particularly in industries where the technology is constantly advancing. Dedicated training and upskilling programs for those returning deliver an easy path to getting back up to speed. These can be integrated into a business’s existing learning and development programs.
For example, at Progress, we offer women self-paced learning modules and peer coaching. It’s crucial that women are offered the support and opportunity to learn without the onus being on them to catch up outside of office hours. With skills gaps growing across the industry, businesses cannot afford to let returning women fall behind.
Designing mentoring programs with returning women in mind can also have huge benefits. Partnering women with others who have experienced the same challenge will give them access to a wealth of advice, and someone to turn to if the change is difficult. In an industry that can often feel male-dominated, it’s crucial that returning women don’t feel like they are alone.
Offer flexibility while keeping staff engaged
Many women with young children fear returning to the workplace because of the difficulties of balancing childcare with full-time work. Organisations should constantly review their workplace policies and procedures with regard to how these may impact women’s childcare responsibilities.
Flexible hours, as well as home-based roles, offer huge advantages for working mothers enabling them to balance work responsibilities with family commitments. With many firms now well-practised in remote or hybrid work, there is little excuse for insisting employees stick to an inflexible office routine. A more open approach will encourage mothers to return to work, and also help retain female staff who will feel more supported and valued.
That said, businesses must make sure that women who take advantage of flexible working options are not missing out because of it. Employers need to ensure that they do not fall into the trap of relying on and valuing the employees they interact with in the office more than those who are home-based. Presenteeism should not be valued above productivity. Businesses should implement specific policies to engage their remote staff, such as virtual socials or regular video calls with co-workers. It’s a careful balancing act, as whilst there are clear benefits of remote and hybrid working, there are also risks that those working from home may feel less connected, or may miss networking opportunities. As businesses navigate the future of hybrid work, these issues must be addressed to avoid a disproportionately negative impact on female workers who choose to work remotely.
Value female talent
Whether organisations consider our current situation to be “The Great Resignation” or “The Great Reset” the skills crisis is real, and businesses cannot afford to let talent slip away. The balancing act that many women tackle between career and family that women have become ‘normalised’. This must change. Organisations must prioritise adapting training and benefits packages to support women returning to the workplace. Doing so will have a valuable and meaningful impact on their career progression, increase retention rates and deliver business value. That’s a winning solution for all.