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09 February 2017

Women returners: The £1 billion career break penalty for professional women

By Yong Jing Teow and Priya Ravidran

As part of PwC Strategy& Economics & Policy practice I play a key role in a range of diversity-related research we release each year. As a female economist, I am particularly passionate about our Women in Work Index. The latest edition shows that the UK has made significant strides in improving female labour market outcomes over the years. Despite this, our most recent research shows there remains a significant source of underutilised potential in the UK: professional women returning from career breaks.

Many professional women, including directors, engineers, scientists, researchers, doctors, lawyers and accountants, will go on career breaks at some point in their lifetime; most often to care for children and, or family members.

Our study looks at how much professional women in the UK were underutilised following their career break.

There are around 478,000 professional women in the UK who are currently on a break. Many plan to return to work later on, but face significant challenges in the process. For example, a “CV gap” is assumed to be associated with a loss of skills, despite acquiring new ones (such as organisational and management skills) outside work. A US study found that 23% of women cited the stigma associated with having a CV gap as a barrier to re-entering the workforce.[1] Many also want to maintain some degree of flexibility over their working hours but there are insufficient roles, particularly at senior levels, that offer flexibility. These challenges mean that many women return to roles that are not commensurate with their skills and previous pay scales.

Our findings suggest that:

  • In total, two-thirds (or around 278,000) professional women could be working below their potential when they return to the workforce.
  • Three in five of these women (or 249,000 women) returning to the workforce are likely to move into lower-skilled or lower-paid roles.
  • 29,000 professional women returning to part-time work wish to work more hours but are unable to due to the lack of flexible full time roles.

As a result, women returners earn less and are less likely to hold senior positions, which perpetuates the lack of diversity in business leadership pipelines.

Addressing the career break penalty experienced by female professionals can deliver significant economic benefits. Our study shows that fully utilising the potential of women returners boosts earnings by £1.1 billion, or around £4,000 for each woman. The increased spending in the economy drives a further increase in output in the UK economy via the multiplier effect, generating an overall £1.7 billion boost to UK economy.

How can business help overcome the career break penalty? Here are some suggestions:

  • Reassess how candidates’ potential are evaluated and address the negative bias towards CV gaps.
  • Recognise flexibility is a talent wide proposition and foster a culture of flexibility for all roles, at all levels.
  • Explore opportunities for returnship programmes.

Returnships create an effective route back to mid- to senior-level professional roles, with transitional support to upskill and regain professional self-belief. Companies across various sectors have embraced return to work schemes and are attracting and hiring increasing levels of experienced female talent as result. The PwC UK Back to Business returnship programme is just one example of this.

Although our findings were specific to the UK, the benefits of harnessing the potential of women returners globally could be immense. It’s clear that there is a strong business case for improving diversity within business. Returning women at senior levels can help build a more diverse leadership pipeline, and studies show that increasing diversity at senior management levels is associated with improved company performance. It’s not only about the business: it’s also about giving returning women a fair deal so that they have the opportunity to succeed.

Find out more about our research on Women Returners and the Women in Work Index.

 [1] US Center for Work Life Policy study (2009)

Jing Yong Jing Teow is an economist in the Economics & Policy practice within PwC Strategy& where she specialises in measuring economic impacts and advising clients on the impact of public policy. As a young female professional, she has a close personal interest in ensuring that all professional women are able to achieve their career ambitions and realise their full potential. She is the lead author of the Women in Work Index, PwC’s annual assessment of female economic empowerment across OECD countries, where she applies her impact assessment experience to articulate the gains from improving economic empowerment for women.
Priya Priya Ravidran is an economist in the Economics & Policy practice within PwC Strategy&. She has experience in econometric analysis, economic impact assessment and public policy development across a range of sectors including transport, health and defence. She also contributes to other flagship publications including the UK Economic Outlook. She has an interest in gender research as she believes further initiatives in this area would result in greater equality and diversity in the workplace.


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