‘I never lost the sense that I was an engineer’: women’s experiences of returning to work after a career break
With the economic necessity of maximising the numbers of adults in the workforce, it is important to consider ways of enabling women to return to work after a career break, particularly as they make up 51% of the population. For many years, the UK government has recognised this imperative and has made recommendations and policies to this effect.1 Many companies now provide ‘returnships’ – time-defined schemes whereby women who have not been at work for at least 2 years can access on the job training. At the end of the returnship, some of the women will be offered a permanent position. As a result of the 2017 report by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Women and Work, the UK Government put aside £50 million to invest in returnships.2 However, returnships are only part of the picture. Other factors that are also important in enabling, or hindering, women’s return to work are professional, logistical and psychological. Taking these factors into consideration could help organisations encourage women back into the workforce and to most effectively utilise returnship schemes
Why is this relevant in SET industries?
Research shows the prevalence of sector-specific issues and it is widely accepted women are under-represented in SET industries. Only 9% of engineers are women3, and having a family is seen as a crunch time, when many female engineers leave the profession and may change sector.4 This is despite women in SET industries having a strong professional identity and sense of professional entitlement,having invested so much time and training into acquiring their professional status.5 The role of professional associations is key in providing support, helping with career development, maintaining charterships and sponsoring schemes like job shares that will make it easier for women to return to work after having a career break.6
The majority of women have career breaks because they have a family, and decisions about returning to work are often shaped by logistical issues. Whether or not women work, domestic duties and the majority of the child-rearing still tends to be their responsibility.7,8 Research shows that the lack of flexible working opportunities and the issues around childcare are significant obstacles to women returning to work.6,9
As well as these professional and logistical issues, psychological factors also need to be considered. Women who have a break from work have a significant reduction in their feelings of self-confidence and self-efficacy.4,6 Part of the reduction in self-confidence is due to women feeling that they need to upskill, showing the need for education and training to be targeted at women returners. Another reason is the reduction in networking opportunities because of not being in the workplace, so women believing that they are not able to shape their futures.6
In a recent piece of qualitative research conducted by Jane Moffett of KANGAROO Coaching, 7 women who had been out of the workforce for at least 2 years were interviewed. This research examined the motivators, barriers and challenges to returning to work after a career break. The following findings give some ideas of the issues that these women faced and how organisations can better support women returning to work after a career break.
Reasons for taking a career break
In every case, the women took a break from their careers because of family reasons. One key influencing factor was the culture and policies of the organisation that the women worked for. If flexible or part-time working was not a viable option – particularly in a long-hours culture – then women could not see how they could make it work to return to that organisation. Issues with childcare was a common reason cited and there was the sense that there was a very real conflict between work and family with the phrase ‘something had to give’ being a common one. Women talked about staying at home for the best of the family unit, although this decision was not necessarily an easy one to make.
Sometimes, the feeling of not being able to see how work could be combined with having a family, was extended to the whole sector itself. As one female engineer said: ‘I was actually considering changing direction, in the hope of finding something that was a bit more family-friendly’.
All the participants had a high sense of professional identity prior to taking a career break, and this feeling remained high, irrespective of whether or not the women returned to the same sector. One of the women said: ‘I never lost the sense that I was an engineer, ever, and I still probably haven’t’. The external recognition that comes from being recognised as a trained professional was an extremely important factor: ‘Having a professional ID is hugely important to your self-esteem’. Two of the women maintained their affiliation to their professional associations whilst being out of the workplace. Whilst these associations offered fee reductions because the women were not in paid employment, it was felt that more could have been done by them, particularly in terms of providing upskilling training prior to return to work and advertising that they offered reduced membership fees. The recommendations from the women were that affordable training in a variety of locations would have made a difference, as the cost of traveling and the childcare involved, made take-up of the training prohibitive if it was just offered in one central place.
Barriers and challenges to returning to work
One of the main challenges to returning to work was the womens’ feelings of confidence and self-belief. Despite their strong connection with their professional identity, the majority of the women said that their confidence was much lower when they were not at work. For some, this was tied into their feelings of self-esteem. When thinking about returning to a professional job, these feelings of low confidence were really heightened; as two women said ‘I completely lost confidence in my ability to work in a professional arena’ and ‘a definite lack of confidence. That was massive.’ The feeling of being under-skilled, because of being out of the workforce for a length of time, added to this feeling of reduced confidence.
Just as combining work with motherhood was a major factor in why the women interviewed left the workforce, this was also a key barrier to returning to work. Issues around how to achieve an appropriate work/home life blend that suited the woman and the family, how returning to work changes the balance with your partner and issues around childcare were all important factors. Finding flexible work was a really important consideration and was identified as a barrier, as was the issue of being able to find childcare that was flexible and affordable enough to be considered.
Finding a job
Actually finding a job after several years out of the workforce was conveyed by this heartfelt statement: ‘it was such an uphill battle for everything’. Feeling unconnected with other professionals and not being in a situation to network was a key barrier for many. Whilst the women knew that networking was important to getting back into the workplace, many of them felt that they had lost touch with their network and now didn’t have one – many of them felt frustrated and powerless about this situation.
Factors that helped with the return to work
Motivation and personal attitude.
All the women had strong motivators spurring them on to return to work when the time was right for them and their family. These ranged from financial, to missing being intellectually challenged, to regaining a sense of work identity, and being a role model to their children. The attitude the women had, and the personal mantras they used, were evidence of the women’s internal resources. The women that had confidence and self-belief really benefitted. One of them said: ‘I didn’t listen to the doubt, I listened to the feedback I got from everybody else that said that I do could do it and that I should do it.’
Another woman, when she approached a previous employer, said: ‘Think of me as a stop-gap and I’ll do a good job for you’. This ‘getting on with things’ approach was also alluded to by some of the other women, one of whom described herself as ‘a do-er’.
Having time away from being in the workforce had enabled many of the women to view things from a fresh perspective. As one of them said: ‘I think it’s a real mindset change though…previously it was very much the high flying, high salary, high this, high that. And now it’s meaningful, it’s sustainable, it’s interesting – so I have changed quite dramatically’. And another said: ‘I’m going to go out there with a new mindset and grab that thing’.
Making the most of opportunities
Several of the women showed themselves to be open to opportunities – or created the opportunities for themselves. One was contacted by an old boss who had set up a company and knew and wanted her skill set. He also knew what stage her children were at and had the far-sightedness to think she might be at a point of considering returning to work and offered her a part-time, term-time only job. Another woman met someone who offered her training, and another got an introduction to an organisation from a relation. Two of the women contacted previous employers, asking them if there were any openings; one of these women made it clear that how much she wanted to work for that particular company: ‘I made sure the people knew how much respect I had for them’.
Once back at work, having clarity about expectations seemed to work well both ways – for the women to be known as committed employees who will always work to a deadline, but also for them to be clear about how much work they can actually take on to be able to meet these deadlines.
There are many great lessons that can be taken from this and previous research – both for organisations and for women with a background in SET jobs who want to return to work after a career break. Whilst there is a role for women themselves and for professional organisations, employers can do a lot to attract women back and to provide the support and environment that is necessary once they have returned. In summary:
- Examining the organisation’s culture and policies to see if there are realistic opportunities for flexible and part-time working
- Linking up with professional associations to provide training and networking opportunities in a variety of locations
- Appreciating the need to provide training to upskill
- Participating in schemes such as confidence-building days prior to the return after a career break
Being proactive and contacting valued ex-employees to see if they are at a stage when they would consider returning to work.
- Prosser M (2009) Women and Work Commission. Shaping a Fairer Future. A review of the recommendations of the women and work commission 3 Years On http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20100212235759/http:/www.equalities.gov.uk/pdf/297158_WWC_Report_acc.pdf
- Women and Work APPG: Women Returners, https://coveragebook.com/b/a475117e Accessed 15/2/2018
- Excell J (2016)’ Where are the women in engineering?’ Engineer (Online Edition), 5/5/2016, pa (accessed 21/7/17)
- Herman C (2015) ‘Rebooting and Rerouting: Women’s Articulations of Frayed Careers in Science, Engineering and Technology Professions’ Gender, Work and Organization Vol.22 No.4
- Herman C, Lewis S (2012) ‘Entitled to a Sustainable Career? Motherhood in Science, Engineering and Technology’ Journal of Social Issues, Volume 68, Issue 4, P 767-789
- Panteli N (2006) ‘Returning to IT: Employment and Development after a Career Break in the United Kingdom’ Labour and Industry: a journal of the social and economic relations of work. Volume 16, Issue 3.
- Gallhofer S, Paisely C, Roberts C, Tarbert H (2011) ‘Preferences, constraints and work‐lifestyle choices’, Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal Vol. 24, Issue 4, pp240-270
- Brown, L (2010) ‘The relationship between motherhood and professional advancement’, Employee Relations Vol. 32, Issue 5, pp470-494
- Gray J (2014) ‘Get (back) in’ Utility Week, 1356632