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Supporting women back into the workplace

by Madaline Dunn

Continued talk of a global talent shortage increases pressure to attract and retain quality staff. It’s undoubtedly difficult to hire the right people; this isn’t a new problem, but it remains fundamental for success. Many businesses struggle to grow their teams effectively, meaning they must focus on finding ways to enhance their human capital in the current environment. One obvious, yet largely overlooked area of opportunity is how companies can support female employees returning to the workplace after a career break or leave of absence.

Let’s look at the facts:

  • The World Bank states that due to gender inequality in lifetime earnings, the world is losing US$160 trillion in wealth (nearly twice the global GDP).
  • 1.8 million women left the workforce during the pandemic – adding to the existing pool of women taking career breaks. 
  • Julius Baer revealed that companies with more than 30% of women on their executive teams were significantly more likely to outperform those with between 10% and 30% of women.
  • 83% of millennials say that a diverse and inclusive workplace is important when evaluating companies and job offers.

There are many reasons why women might take time off, such as becoming a mother, moving abroad, going through a separation, experiencing illness, caring for a relative, or suffering a bereavement. None of these things reflect their ability or attitude towards work, yet there is still a stigma. Employers may assume that women who take a break are less committed, out of touch with the latest trends and technologies, less productive, or less reliable. These assumptions are wrong. As we’ve seen, career breaks happen in all sorts of circumstances, and women often return to the workforce with new skills and perspectives. In fact, some studies show that people who take career breaks may be more motivated and productive when they return than those who don’t.

Women are being vastly underutilised in the world of work, and this short-sightedness translates to lost earnings for almost every sector globally. It has a significant impact on their mental health and well-being, as well as corporate productivity. When people are unable to fulfil their potential it can also lead to social problems, such as poverty and inequality. We need to make sure these women recognise their worth, and we must encourage organisations to create diverse working environments that benefit both the employees and the business.

What can companies do?

The first step is to implement a returnship programme i.e. a paid internship designed to reintegrate and upskill returners. Returnships attract mostly women struggling to reach Manager, Director, VP, or Executive level roles. The MENA region can learn from examples set by global organisations such as Accenture, Amazon, Dell, and Microsoft who all offer popular return-to-work programmes. Some of the big names are starting to follow suit locally, but many more can still benefit.

Before putting anything in place, the senior management team needs to understand the value and impact returners represent for the business. It can be useful to bring in an expert in this area to discuss the options and opportunities with senior leaders, and also answer any questions or concerns they have. It’s crucial that they are comfortable with the approach.

Some steps companies can take as part of their returnship policy include:

  • Flexible work arrangements: Many returnship participants have caregiving responsibilities or other personal commitments. Companies can offer flexible work arrangements, such as part-time work, telecommuting, and compressed workweeks, to accommodate these needs.
  • Childcare assistance: Childcare support can help to reduce the financial burden of childcare and make it easier for participants to focus on their work.
  • Wellness programmes: Fitness classes, stress management workshops, and access to on-site medical care can all encourage returners to stay healthy and productive.
  • Professional development opportunities: Professional development opportunities such as tuition reimbursement, conference attendance, and leadership development programmes will ensure staff have the skills they need to thrive in the organisation and continue to develop in their careers.

Advice for women returning to work

When women are ready to re-enter the workforce, it’s not only about relying on the company. Navigating the ever-evolving professional landscape and reclaiming your career path can feel overwhelming. However, with careful planning and a positive attitude, individuals can make this transition smoother and more successful through self-assessment, research and networking, and strategy development.

When you are self-assessing your re-entry, identify your goals and aspirations. What do you want to achieve professionally? What kind of work environment are you looking for? It is really important to evaluate your skillset and understand strengths and weaknesses. Once you have identified these aspects, define your time commitment and how many hours you can dedicate to work each week.

The next step would be to Identify potential career paths, explore job postings and industry trends to understand current opportunities. Reconnect with new and old professional networks, try reaching out to former colleagues, mentors, and industry contacts to stay informed and explore potential leads. Also utilise online resources. Take advantage of online courses, training programmes, and professional development communities to refresh your skills and knowledge. It is always beneficial to upskill whenever you can.

Lastly, develop a strategy by creating or updating a resume and cover letter: Highlight your skills, experience, and achievements, tailoring them to target positions and practice your interviewing skills. Some may find it beneficial to seek professional help and reach out to a career or professional growth service.

I strongly believe that supporting returnships is a win-win all-round. Returnship programmes can enable businesses to attract and retain top talent, build a more diverse and inclusive workplace, and improve their productivity and profitability. They can also help individuals to refresh their skills, learn new ones, and network with other professionals.

By Niki Mapouras-Hyder, Professional Development Mentor & Founder of NMH

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