WISE Conference 2023: ‘Returners are an untapped, high-calibre talent pool,’ said GEO lead

WISE Conference 2023 overview: Nina Lawrence, Head of Return To Work Policy at the Government Equalities Office, made the statement during her morning keynote session at the WISE Conference 2023.

She added: “Employers that recognise the characteristics and motivations of this group will improve the gender, age and cognitive diversity of their workforce.”

Nina explained that 75,000 returners have a STEM background but that they struggle to re-enter the workforce owing to a lack of flexible job opportunities, discrimination from employers and low confidence which has a big impact on pay and progression.

GEO provide the following tips for STEM employers looking to recruit more returners into their workforce:

  • advertise specific flex working options in all vacancies;
  • make part-time and flexible working the default;
  • use targeted referrals inviting women to apply;
  • make it possible to list experience in years;
  • only include requirements if they are actually required.

Nina Lawrence, Government Equalities Office

The event, themed ‘Empowering Your Workforce’, took place on 21 March 2023 at the IET in London. This first in-person WISE conference since 2019 was designed to both help employers create a workplace of inclusion and belonging, and empower talented women to progress their STEM careers.

The day’s presentations and sessions reflected an increasingly innovative approach to workplace organisation, a drive to fill an increasing number of STEM vacancies, and a growing recognition that diversity leads to improved performance.

WISE will distribute a delegate pack to the 226 attendees early next week. This will contain slides and further information on the speakers and sessions.  

Afternoon Keynote

An inspiring afternoon keynote session run by Dr Merritt Moore, a quantum physicist and professional ballerina, focused on following one’s passion and valuing transferable skills. Merritt explained that being a scientist also helped her career as a ballerina: “Lab work helps us try things with the assumption that they will probably fail. This was a major asset when auditioning as a ballerina,” she said.  


Morning session: A returner’s story

Jamila Bhaiji, an Environmental Scientist from Atkins, relayed her returner journey and reasons for joining Atkins.

Jamila Bhaiji, Atkins

Panel Session 1: How to engage and recruit returners

Nina Lawrence joined a panel discussion hosted by WISE Young Professionals Board vice-chair Beth Clarke featuring Jamila Bhaiji an Environmental Consultant from Atkins, who had participated in the organisation’s returners programme; Jilly Calder Vice President HR, Atkins, and Lily Kitchen Acting D&I Project Manager, Network Rail. They discussed the challenges of establishing programmes for returners. They panel agreed that coaching, mentoring, contact during leave, and flexibility were conditions most likely to attract and retain returners.

Morning panel Left to Right: WYPB Vice-Chair Beth Clarke; Jamila Bhaiji – Atkins, Nina Lawrence – GEO, Jilly Calder – Atkins, Lily Kitchen – Network Rail.

Panel session 2: The importance of recognising transferable skills

Dr Merritt Moore joined Lydia Fairman, Head of Capability and Skills Development at Network Rail; Julie Dennis Head of Diversity and inclusion at Acas; and Jacqui Kendall Project Manager at the Rail Delivery Group (RDG). The session was chaired by WISE board member Steve Fox.

The audience were highly engaged with the panel and made good use of Slido, a real-time interaction tool. When asked which key transferable skills employers were currently looking for the audience cited ‘communication’, ‘resilience’, ‘problem solving’, ‘creativity’ and ‘adaptability’ among others [see pic below].  

Afternoon panel left to right: Dr Merritt Moore; Julie Dennis – ACAS; Lydia Fairman – Network Rail; Jacqui Kendall – RDG; Steve Fox – WISE Board

Innovation session 1: Developing an effective returners programme

Anoushka Carling Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Lead from STEM Returners provided useful insights from the STEM Returners Index which surveyed over 1,000 returners. She said:

  • 72% of the returners pool have a undergraduate degree or above.
  • 64% had been in a managerial or professional role before their break.
  • 58% had more than five years experience before their break.

Debbie Kempton Group Engineering Director, BAE Systems described a returners scheme run by the organisation. She said “hiring managers need help to understand the importance, benefits, business case, and support needed to run a returners scheme at scale.”   

Anoushka, STEM Returners

Innovation session 2: Developing inclusive recruitment

Vincent Hale Head of Sales, BASF explained that the organisation’s recruitment process was broken down into the following stages:

  • Baseline: look at unconscious bias training rates and collect demographic data.
  • Job person and specification: are role requirements essential?; check for gendered language.
  • Job ads: check content (images) are representative; use suitable job boards and recruitment agencies.
  • Shortlisting: check for bias and look at the shortlisting criteria.
  • Interview and selecting: ensure consistent and structured assessments with scoring; ensure diverse panel composition.
Vincent Hale, BASF

Innovation session 3: Using the apprenticeship levy to fund coaching-led returners programmes

Drawing on personal experience, Sara Bresler Client Director – Digital and Data from Corndel shared insights into how to navigate and access government funding available through the apprenticeship levy.

Sara Bresler, Corndel

Innovation session 4: How to create a family friendly workplace

Jessica Heagren founder of That Works For Me gave a presentation on work after motherhood and provided some information on the type of flexible working mothers want. She said 86% of mothers would choose to work three days a week or more, while 52% would choose four days. We will provide more information in the delegate pack.

Jessica Heagren, That Works For Me

Development session 5: Behaviour-led reskilling​, Network Rail

This session presented by Ben Sutcliffe Group Strategic Workforce Planning Manager and Lynn Chamberlain-Clark, Culture Lead – Embedment​ focused on how technical requirements can be replaced (in most cases) with behavioural requirements that include communication, listening, understanding, and organisation.  

Ben Sutcliffe and Lynn Chamberlain Clark

Development session 6: Are you an imposter?

Ishreem Bradley strategic pioneer at Belonging Pioneers hosted a lively and interactive session covering the nine imposter syndrome archetypes. Anyone that would like to know more about their own can take the following test! https://ishreenbradley.com/quiz-imposter.

Ishreem Bradley, Belonging Pioneers

Development session 7: How to talk confidently about your achievements in a factual way

In a session largely attended by STEM students, Ursula Tavender, Joint CEO, Flexpo explained how moving away from a traditional chronological CV and focusing on transferable skills, capabilities, metrics, achievements and stakeholder engagement will help applicants to be more successful in securing job interviews for high-calibre roles.  

Ursula Tavendar, Joint CEO Flexpo

Development session 8: How can you inspire the next generation of girls into STEM?

In this slot Katherine Watson Head of WISE Products and Services (Projects) ran a My Skills My Life session. My Skills My Life is WISE’s outreach programme – it uses a personality test to show girls and young women the type of STEM career that might suit them best, then puts them in touch with STEM role models in these careers.

Katherine Watson, WISE

Drinks reception: Innovation in EDI

At the AWE sponsored drinks reception Andrea Macfarlane, AWE’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Senior Manager, Lesley Hoile head of leadership and talent at AWE and Mara Tafadzwa Makoni from PA Consulting participated in an uplifiting conversation with insights into how diversity and belonging lead to improved happiness and wellbeing. The wine and good conversation at the end of the day played their part too!

A big thanks to the WISE Young Professionals Board as well as partners, sponsors, and presenters for helping to make the WISE 2023 Conference a fantastic event.