Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond’s 2017 Spring Budget announcements built on the government’s strong record supporting women, particularly those looking to get back to work after having a child. The budget included £20 million for organisations that tackle domestic violence and abuse, as well as a further £5 million fund available for returnship – to help those returning to work after long career breaks.
Returnships will be open to women and men, with the aim of giving people who have taken lengthy career breaks the opportunity to refresh their skills and build professional networks. The government will work with business groups and public sector organisations to identify how to boost further the opportunities for women returning to work.
Prime Minister Theresa May was proud to announce the boost on this years International Women’s Day.
May says, ‘Women are driving our economy forward, securing 77 per cent of new jobs last year – and now represent a higher percentage of FTSE Board membership than ever before.
‘Returnships are open to both men and women but we should acknowledge that, more often than not, it is women who give up their careers to devote themselves to motherhood, only to find the route back into employment closed off – the doors shut to them.
‘This isn’t right, it isn’t fair and it doesn’t make economic sense. So I want to see this scheme extended to all levels of management and into industries where women are underrepresented.’
While the funding for returning parents has been generally applauded by the wider public, it is commonly seen as a token gesture that will have little ‘on-the-ground’ effect on parents coming back to work.
There is a perception among many business owners that rather than trying to transform this cultural phenomenon with money, the government should be working to revolutionise opinion on women’s rights and how to approach returning parents to work.
Wendy Nicholls, tax partner at Grant Thornton UK LLP, says, ‘The Chancellor’s announcement of £5m in extra funding to support returnships, while a step in the right direction, is just a drop in the ocean in what’s needed to tackle the entrenched gender disparity in the labour market. The vast majority of people who need such support are mothers returning to work, many of whom won’t have had a job for a number of years.
‘Our Women in Business research has found that the number of senior business roles held by women has actually fallen this year from 21 per cent to 19 per cent and this means that since the survey began this has only gained 1 per cent, the issue of gender equality in the workplace is getting worse not better. The government needs to address this issue head on and commit much more funding in the years ahead.’
Cat Gazzoli, founder of organic baby food brand Piccolo, thinks that soaring childcare costs shouldn’t be a reason for women to have to choose between parenting and a career.
She adds, ‘There is still a stigma around ‘working mothers’, which facilitates a negative image of women with children and a career. The question of whether or not these working women are ‘bad mothers’ is often raised within the media. However the same question is infrequently posed for men, as women are still regarded as the primary caregiver. A women’s employment opportunities are therefore often damaged by the idea that she may leave work to have children and further limited when she does have children.
‘In order to facilitate change in the way that women with children are viewed within the workplace, there needs to be a shift from the idea of ‘working mothers’ towards ‘working parents’. A way companies can facilitate this change is to begin enforcing compulsory paternity leave. This would challenge the traditional gender roles that see only women taking on the responsibility of the caregiver and change the mindset of employers in regard to women taking maternity leave.’
CEO of Bizdaq, Sean Mallon, believes that it doesn’t go far enough to bring parity between genders and says, ‘As recently as two years ago, a quarter of women were taking less than two weeks maternity, and half were returning before their maternity leave finished. With childcare costing an average of £222.36 per week, it’s easy to see both why so many choose to return to work before they’re ready, and how little £5m will go towards helping the people who really need it.’
There are many companies in the UK who are championing maternity leave for women regardless of the assistance that the government is offering. For example, Accenture offers their employees nine months fully paid maternity leave, with guidance and assistance to help progress once they are back to work.
Companies like First Direct will offer facilities in the office to help mothers cope with the stress, including in-office creche facilities and the option to work part time flexible hours.
While the returnship fund is an admirable cushion for returning workers, there is evidently plenty more that businesses can do on an individual level to help get their employees back to work.