In a market where just about every job vacancy receives hundreds of applications, a gap in a candidate’s work history is all too often the kiss of death that takes their CV out of the running at the first hurdle. It’s just one of several obstacles returners face after a career break, whether their hiatus was enforced or voluntary.

According to the Office for National Statistics, there were 1.8 million women in the UK who were not in paid employment prior to the pandemic because they were looking after family and home. That number, which excludes the many female carers who receive small amounts of paid income, compares to just 200,000 men in the same circumstances.

Add to that the disproportionate number of women who have been furloughed during the Covid outbreak, or who have already lost their jobs, and the concern becomes that the health emergency is morphing into a women’s economic crisis that will hamper earnings and living standards for many years to come.

“Now is absolutely the time to do something about it,” says Hazel Little, client and programme director at Women Returners. “This is a really critical juncture, coming out of the pandemic, where we need to make sure there is support in place for those women to get back into work.”

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Set up in 2014 with the mission to remove the “career break penalty” by making employment breaks a normal part of a 40 to 50-year career, Women Returners is a social enterprise working with employers and individuals to create supported routes back into employment. Despite its name, it works on behalf of both male and female professionals, though the majority are women.

Estimates from Women Returners show the number of “returnships” across the UK – paid internships for experienced professionals – have been on the increase since 2014. Earlier this month, Women Returners hosted a connection event backed by Scottish Government funding and aimed at creating hiring opportunities with employers from the finance, fintech and professional services sectors.

Some individual firms in Scotland are also taking action. In January of this year, public relations agency Muckle Media delivered its first Returners to Communication programme, which was also supported by the Scottish Government’s Women Returners Fund.

The 10-week programme provided 12 women with live training, group sessions and one-to-one mentoring, and was followed by a condensed two-week programme attended by an additional 10 participants. Muckle founder Nathalie Agnew said the programme was a “great success”, with four of the returners kept on permanently at her firm.

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Among them were Mhairi De Luca and Katy Hughes, who have joined as account directors on the consumer team.

Ms De Luca had 13 years’ experience working in PR across consumer brands before deciding to step back after the birth of her third child. She joined the Muckle programme after a break that was “stretched” longer than she would have liked because of Covid.

“After three years out, I was just starting to have some doubts about my skills, whether they were still up-to-date, and I think that was common with everyone on the programme,” she said.

“It is not just within my industry. I speak to other mums who question whether they can jump back in and do the work, even after just a year of maternity leave. We all had the exact same concerns.”

Her biggest challenge, though, was finding a role commensurate with her previous level of experience that she could take on a part-time basis to balance her parental and professional commitments. She is now on a permanent contract working three days per week.

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“I wanted to be at account director level but those are few and far between on a part-time basis,” she said.

Linsay Brown, who led the returners programme for Muckle Media, said stepping back into work after an extended break can be “incredibly daunting”.

“As a mum myself who returned to the PR industry at the beginning of this year after a 10-month break having my first baby, it was even more important to me to create an environment and programme that supported women back into the workplace and helped build their confidence and allowed them to recognise everything they would bring to a role in communications,” she said.