It’s a familiar story. Mothers who take a break in their careers to raise children. They are ready to return to work, but face a bias from employers and concerns over the gap in their work history. And stay-at-home mothers often have difficulty returning in a senior position or at the salary level they were at when they left — especially for those seeking flexible work.
However, staffing firms, training companies and career websites have emerged with the mission of helping mothers return to the workforce. They’ll help connect workers with jobs, help with planning to help mothers back into the workforce, provide training, and even educating companies on the benefits of hiring returners to the workforce.
“All the ambition and skill set don’t go just because you have a child,” says Abbie Coleman, founder of MMB, a magazine for working mothers based in Yorkshire, England. MMB also includes a job board and flexible working employer directory. By overlooking such candidates, “not only are we throwing the talent away, companies seem to be dismissing strong talent and knowledge due to a parent’s need to work flexible hours or a simple break in career history.”
The concept is not new; firms have been started in the past to help mothers interested in returning to work. But the effort may be taking on extra urgency today amid the low unemployment in the UK and US as well as the global focus on closing the wage gap between men and women’s earnings — something that returning to work may help shrink.
In fact, UK firms with at least 250 employees were required by April 4 to have reported their gender pay gaps, according to Bloomberg. And the numbers show women are paid less. At one firm, HSBC Bank plc, women’s average hourly rate is 59% lower than men’s, and their median hourly rate is 29% lower than men’s. The tool for viewing company wage gaps is available online.
Reena Gupta, CEO of Mom Relaunch in Pleasanton, Calif., says now is the time for women to get back into the workforce. The technology is there to support them, and families are becoming more supportive. “If moms cannot get back to work at this time, I don’t know when they will be,” Gupta says.
Moms Relaunch aims to work with mothers to get them back into the workforce in HR and IT industries. Gupta got the idea in 2002 when she decided not to go back to work full-time after having her first child. She had been a chief technical architect at a startup firm, which was acquired by a large publishing firm. Instead of returning, Gupta launched her first staffing company called Avankia. Her former employer became a client. She knew her former employer’s system and eventually brought in a stay-at-home mother to work as a business analyst.
“These moms, they are bright, talented, but they just don’t know how to get back into the workforce,” Gupta says. So at its end, Mom Relaunch has a “LaunchPad” model, a learning platform for mothers working together to rejoin the workforce. It enables them to work in a simulated environment directly on Mom Relaunch projects or client projects to rebuild their skills and boost their confidence.
Mom Relaunch also received support from companies like Salesforce.com and Careerforce with training and career advice to help women get back into the workplace.
One concern for firms and organizations in this space is the bias those who leave the workforce can face upon their return.
Researchers have also studied this. A Harvard Business Review article by Kate Weisshaar, assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, reported employers are half as likely to interview stay-at-home parents than parents who were laid off.
One of the biggest challenges is getting employers to understand the benefits of hiring mothers returning to the workforce, says Amanda Stubbs of MojoMums. “More employers are cottoning on to the fact there is a huge skilled workforce,” Stubbs says. “You gain access to often highly qualified, sometimes overqualified, very experienced candidates who are going to work very hard.” But change is coming slowly.
MojoMums, based in Hertfordshire, England, has two websites — one for the lifestyle of working parents, those who want to work, have their own business or are thinking of going back to work, supported by a recruitment website. The company also offers a full recruitment service where it connects working mothers with both temporary and permanent jobs in all industries. It operations encompass the entire UK, and employment across all sectors.
Mojo Mums is also staffed by working mothers. “We’ve all been there, we’ve all had careers before having children and faced those hurdles to get back to working life,” Stubbs says.
Sometimes employers see working parents as a negative because children can get sick and there are school holidays to work around. On the other hand, returners often work harder and are more dedicated, and they certainly have the ability to multitask — one of the skills used at home that can translate to the workplace.
“There’s a lot of mums work looking to get back from a financial perspective; also there’s a lot of women who have a lot of valuable skills and want to regain their identity outside of home,” Stubbs says.
Sometimes the demands of parenting might not allow for a nine-to-five job, but they can perform just as well with a little bit of flexibility, she says, adding they are hoping to see more change in this area so that in years to come, flexibility is seen as the norm and not an individual benefit.
One difficulty faced by women returning to the workforce is gap that is on their résumé, or CV.
“Women with a résumé gap face a huge uphill climb,” says Addie Swartz, CEO and founder of reacHIRE, based in Concord, Mass. Applicant tracking systems can automatically reject people with work gaps, and mothers returning to the workforce may never be able to speak with a human being at a potential employer.
“I started reacHIRE because I saw a huge untapped talent sitting on the sidelines,” Swartz says. “I felt I could help these women find a way back into the workforce. …. Honestly, it shouldn’t be so difficult.”
ReacHIRE aims to train, retool, onboard and support women getting back into the workforce. Among the many options it offers employers is a 24-week program that combines training and on-the-job experience. After 24 weeks, positions within the companies can be extended, made permanent, or the women are able to leverage their recent experience to pursue another job opportunity.
Swartz says companies have so much to benefit from bringing in mothers who have taken a career break back into the workplace. Study after study has proven that gender diversity drives creativity, innovation and bottom line profitability for companies. In addition, for many markets, at least half the buyers are women. Organizations are less prepared to serve their customers if they don’t have enough talent in responsible positions that mirror the markets they serve.
Nishi Mehta, co-founder of Career Mums, a Midlands, England-based consultancy that trains women on returning to work, says the résumé/CV gap is a factor in the UK as well.
“The kind of dreaded cv gap is still a huge issue,” Mehta says; it’s often an issue for the returner as well as employers, and parents need to consider how to account for this on their CV.
Mehta’s firm works with mothers to help them plan and prepare to go back to work and reconnect with the business world. That includes finding out what is driving them to get back to work and devising an action plan to get them back in the workplace. The company started in 2016 when Mehta and co-founder Sally Dhillon — a fellow stay-at-home mother Mehta met through her children’s school — ran workshops on going back to work that were well-received.
“These parents have usually got a lot of experience and skills in their prior work life,” Mehta says, however, they may feel a little rusty and need to rebuild confidence.
But while returning parents may need to be brought up to speed, employers are overlooking an important talent pool if they ignore mothers returning to work. “What employers need to do is have a fresh perspective,” she says. “Anyone who meets a mum who has managed a home knows she has great skills to bring to the table.”
The Persistent Pay Gap
But for mothers who do return to work, the firms in this space say being able to return at the same pay and level they had left can be difficult.
“One of the things that I quickly learned was how difficult it was to have part time or flexible work that was at the same level as I left,” Mehta says. Despite a degree and experience, jobs with flexibility were at a more unskilled level than she was accustomed.
Some women returning to work pursue part-time status, and that can lead to lower pay as well.
The UK’s Institute for Fiscal Studies found that mothers suffer a long-term pay penalty when working part-time because part-time workers often don’t see a year-over-year pay increase, while full-time workers typically do.
“There are many likely reasons for persistent gaps in the wages of men and women which research is still investigating, but the fact that working part-time has a long-term depressing effect is an important contributing factor,” Monica Costa Dias, associate director at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and author of the report, says in a statement. “It is remarkable that periods spent in part-time work lead to virtually no wage progression at all.”
MMB magazine’s Coleman, who also has 18 years of experience in the recruitment industry, says there are many flexible jobs, but not flexible careers. There tend to be more part-time jobs for less than £20,000, she says, but there are not many part-time or flexible jobs that pay from £25,000 to £80,000.
“Try to find a career role for £25k to £80k that is part time or flexible working, it’s just not there. Jump on any of the job boards and see for yourself,” Coleman says. That’s where change is needed, she asserts.
There’s also hesitancy among businesses and workers to discuss flexibility in the workplace. Many businesses are frightened to speak with employees for fear of putting pressure on employee or it being taken the wrong way, or line managers are simply not trained to engage staffing in a strong, supportive manner. Employees are concerned about asking about flexible work because they may fear they could lose their job.
On the other hand, parents and workers planning to start families are attracted to companies with family friendly policies, Coleman says. The cost of staff retention and attracting new staff is high, so supporting and engaging mothers returning from maternity leave makes sense, not just ethically but commercially. There is also stronger loyalty among those who return through a positive and flexible process.
Bringing mothers back into the workplace at senior positions might also help shrink the gender pay gap.
Research by executive search firm Korn Ferry International found there are fewer women in higher-level jobs and higher-paying industries leading to the pay gap in the US. Men are paid 17.6% more than women in the US, but the gap fell to 7% when evaluating the same job, such as director. It fell to 2.6% when considering the same level at the same company, and when male and female employees at the same level and the same company worked in the same function, the average gap amounted to 0.9%.
The research looked at an analysis of gender and pay for more than 1.3 million employees in 777 companies in the US.
“Our data show that women earn nearly 20% less than men as a whole, which is a real, significant issue, but this doesn’t paint a complete picture,” Korn Ferry Senior Client Partner Maryam Morse says in a statement. “While there are still a number of organizations that pay women less for the same role, on average, when we compared women and men in the same jobs, the gap is significantly reduced.
There are other benefits as well, according to Amy Henderson, CEO and cofounder at Tendlab, a firm that works with companies to realize the value of their parent employees to increase retention, engagement and productivity.
Henderson began interviewing working mothers while on maternity leave and ultimately put together a database of 200 (interviews of both moms and dads) and says she found that people who became parents were developing skills that made them better at work.
“The main skills are enhanced emotional intelligence, greater courage, increased productivity and efficiency, better able to collaborate with others and having enhanced ambition,” Henderson says. “Technology is changing the way we operate and these are the skills that are going to be relevant.”
Henderson cited research by neurobiologist Ruth Feldman, of Bar-Ilan University in Israel and an adjunct faculty member at the Yale School of Medicine. The research indicated that parents develop a better capacity to anchor feelings in the present moment, empathize, and collaborate with others accomplish shared goals.
Tendlab is also partnering with Mom Relaunch on a training platform that enables women to build a community and improve themselves.
Allison Robinson, founder, of The Mom Project, a Chicago-based talent marketplace that matches professional women with jobs, says she sees more mothers re-entering the workplace and more people taking nontraditional career paths.
“We see mothers wanting to reenter the workplace in large numbers,” Robinson says. “In fact, millennials are already taking careers pauses for family reasons at a greater rate than Gen X and baby boomers. Also, many professionals are responsible for caring for aging parents or family members. All of these important factors are leading to less linear career paths for today’s worker.”
But she says she doesn’t see this as a niche.
“Moms aren’t a niche!” Robinson says. “There are over 30 million working mothers in the US and we know from our research that 83% of mothers will leave a job for an opportunity that better supports their work-life considerations. This is a game-changer for one of the largest segments of our workforce.”