Ending the stigma of taking a career break

Welcoming highly skilled professionals back into the workforce after a long-term career break could represent serious financial benefits for both businesses and the wider economy.


Developing a strong pipeline of female leaders is a serious concern for the marketing industry as it strives to become more diverse both in age and gender.

Aside from the widening gender pay gap, one of the biggest issues facing female marketers is the penalty being imposed on their careers for taking a break to raise their children.

Whether they choose to step away from work for three, five or even 10 years, women contemplating a return to the workplace face a number of barriers, ranging from recruitment biases regarding the gap on their CV to a lack of flexible or part-time roles on offer.   

There is, however, concrete evidence that engaging this untapped pool of senior talent could reap serious financial benefits, not only for businesses but the wider economy.

Addressing the career gap penalty for female professionals would create an annual earnings boost of £1.1bn, or £4,000 per woman, according to research jointly conducted by PwC, the 30% Club, which is focused on getting more women onto FTSE 100 boards, and professional network Women Returners. This would result in £1.7bn worth of additional economic output in increased earnings and spending power.

This pipeline is significant. The research suggests 427,000 female professionals currently on a career break will likely return to work in the future. Furthermore, 76% of professional women want to return to work.

Gaps are irrelevant and depending on why someone took them it can add life experience and huge credibility to who they are as an individual.

Kirsten Walkom, Save the Children

There are, however, many issues facing returners once they are back in the workplace. Following a career break women are at real risk of “occupational downgrading”. According to PwC, three in five women are likely to end up in lower skilled roles compared to the job they held before their career break, with 65% of female returners working below their potential.

Underemployment is another challenge to contend with. Some 29,000 women who have returned to work on a part-time basis would rather work more hours if flexible working was available.

Bridging the gap

To tackle the specific challenges faced by the marketing industry Amanda Fone, founder and CEO of recruitment firm F1 teamed up with Liz Nottingham, HR director at advertising agency R/GA, to establish the Back2Businesship programme.

Launched in 2014, the programme aims to bridge the gap between employers and marketers looking to return to work after a career break and to date has helped 80 candidates rejoin the workplace in permanent or flexible roles.

The programme includes two weeks of mentoring, skills assessment and upskilling, followed by a three-month paid ‘returnship’ with companies including long-term partner Golin PR, HP Inc., Save the Children and Chelsea FC.

Pitched as a consultancy contract, the returnship enables senior marketers to fill the gap on their CV with relevant, practical experience that counts when they are looking for a permanent role.

“The number one goal is to get these women back into the workplace contributing to the bottom line and opening organisations’ eyes to the fact there is an untapped talent stream that is just sitting there if only they could be a bit more imaginative,” says Fone.

“I call it the blind spot. If you know you lose X percentage of your staff every year, you could be using this untapped talent in your organisation.”

READ MORE: How brands are rebalancing the gender divide

Breaking down the barriers

Despite having 12 years’ marketing and communications experience, Jan Sanghera experienced difficulty re-entering the workplace after taking four years out to raise her two children, one year of which was spent studying for a digital marketing diploma from the Institute of Direct and Digital Marketing (IDM).

“I was applying but I wouldn’t hear back. The more I applied, the more I kept thinking the gap on my CV was the issue,” Sanghera recalls.

“I’d had senior marketing and comms experience, and now I had this up-to-date skillset in digital and I thought I would at least get to the interview stage, so it was slightly disheartening that I wasn’t hearing back.”

Taking part in the two-week Back2Businesship programme taught Sanghera to see her career break as something positive, while the networking element of the course introduced her to Neta Tully, vice-president of communications at HP EMEA.

The 2016 Back2Businesship cohort

In April, Sanghera was brought on board at HP for a three-month paid placement working as a contractor on strategic projects, running HP’s Sustainability Summit from planning to implementation.

“When I first started at the company I thought I would be stereotyped by having had this career break, but actually I didn’t have anything to worry about,” says Sanghera.

“Everyone has a very modern approach to working. People need a work-life balance and I see people working at HP in a really flexible way. That’s the way forward.”

Despite starting out as a pilot placement for three months, HP has already extended Sanghera’s contract to six months.

“Jan just got into the middle of it and I have to say I couldn’t have found a more motivated, capable or enthusiastic candidate,” says HP’s Neta Tully.

Tully argues that for a returnship to work it needs to form part of a wider commitment to diversity, rather than simply a “CSR tick box” exercise. She cites the decision taken by HP chief marketing and communications officer Antonio Lucio in August 2016 to issue his agencies with a 30-day deadline to explain how they would improve gender and ethnic diversity within their creative departments.

“There’s a lot of hidden talent in the workforce that don’t feel confident enough to come back and the more these programmes take place, the more people understand that this is a good option,” Tully adds.

READ MORE: We must be business people first and marketers second, says HP CMO

Brands making strides

The desire among marketers to re-enter the workplace presents a real opportunity for brands with the foresight to reconnect with this currently untapped talent pool.

Anna Hale, area marketing director Northern Europe, GSK Consumer Healthcare, explains that pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline is committed to supporting employees who have taken an extended break from their career.

“A good example is one of our marketers, who took a three-year career break, re-joined GSK in the US and then was subsequently promoted to one of our most senior marketing roles in the UK and relocated to London to take up the role,” says Hale.

She believes it is time to stamp out the historic stigma around taking a career break by supporting equal maternity/paternity leave packages.

“This is currently happening with one of our male senior brand managers who is on six months’ parental leave. We also fully support part-time working hours in roles where it can be tailored to accommodate a three- or four-day working week,” Hale adds.

I was applying but I wouldn’t hear back. The more I applied, the more I kept thinking the gap on my CV was the issue.

Jan Sanghera, HP

The Co-op provides support for people returning to employment after an extended period, including giving all marketers access to ISBA courses in a bid to aid their professional development.

“We also hold quarterly all-marketing events for everyone across the marketing community with external speakers to ensure anyone coming back into the business can get up to speed with some of the business and industry’s latest thinking,” says Co-op director of brand, Helen Carroll.

“In addition to this, we work closely with all our agency partners to offer training and development opportunities for our marketing colleagues. As a co-op we see that a diverse workforce is a strength and people returning to work bring experience and a perspective that’s valuable to us as a business.”

Going in a new direction

A three-month placement with Save the Children took Joan Reilly in a new direction after a three-year career break raising her daughter. As business director at digital agency Blue Hive, part of the WPP group and now known as GTB, Reilly worked on digital and communications projects for car maker Ford’s global business.

“My background was in advertising and the structure there was very much you jump jobs in order to build you career, because that’s where you get your pay rises,” Reilly explains.

“As a result, if you look at the figures the actual amount of women who are returning to the workforce [in advertising] is quite low, because there’s this general feeling that the younger people will work harder and deliver more.”

It was through the Back2Businesship programme that Reilly went brand side for the first time, working in the Save the Children communications team on a deep dive analysis of their digital reach, web, media, mobile and other internal digital operations.

Using her digital skills acquired on agency side, Reilly conducted a peer review, digital best practice overview and offered recommendations about what the charity should do to improve its digital reach in the coming year.

“It was totally new for me to work in-brand and was on my list of desirable things to do so I was really pleased to get the opportunity,” she explains.

“I spent a few weeks looking at Google Analytics on a deep level, doing more of a planning role as well, whereas my background had been more account management in the agency world. So I was learning on the job, but I had the experience to know what the outcome should be.”

Joan Reilly
Joan Reilly taking part in a Back2Businesship networking session

Kirsten Walkom, global communications director at Save the Children International, explains that it was important to give Reilly a meaty project that she could sink her teeth into, the outcome of which was also directly measurable.

“We are a very thinly resourced team and very busy, so I recognised we needed something that she could really grab and own. We were really lucky with Joan’s area of expertise, maturity and skillset that we were confident she could do that,” says Walkom.

“Gaps are irrelevant and depending on why someone took them it can add life experience and huge credibility to who they are as an individual. I think the market moves on, so the returner needs to be able to demonstrate an understanding of the current market and how they will add value. I’m a very strong believer that you can teach skills, but you can’t teach attitude.”

Reilly agrees that the value of being a seasoned marketer is that you bring both professional and life experience to the role, and if brands want to attract mums they should probably employ some.

“There’s been a lot of people who do not return to work or their level, because they don’t feel there’s the opportunity. There is a wealth of intelligence, experience and really credible people out there, who will bring an awful lot of value to your business, also from a targeting perspective,” Reilly adds.

READ MORE: The benefits of integrating workplace wellbeing into performance management

Taking the initiative

A number of other brands are rolling out schemes to support professionals who have taken over two years out of work.

Vodafone, for example, has launched what it claims to be the world’s largest programme to recruit women who have taken a career break. Over the next three years the ReConnect programme hopes to hire 1,000 people worldwide who have spent up to a decade out of the workplace. Covering 26 countries, half of the jobs will be for frontline roles such as call centres and Vodafone shops, while the other half will be managerial positions.

At wealth management firm UBS, the Career Comeback scheme involves a two-week on-boarding programme, which helps the candidate get up to speed on the financial markets, alongside bi-monthly peer group coaching sessions, mentoring and a dedicated buddy system.

Financial services brand PwC has gone down a slightly different route, looking to recruit managers and senior managers who have taken a career break upwards of two years to its six-month paid senior internship programme.

A similar approach has been adopted by Barclays, which in October will roll out Encore, a new 12-week paid programme offering returners the chance to work on a live project matched to their capabilities and experience.


With the state pension age rising from 67 to 68 between 2037 and 2039 – seven years earlier than planned – marketing careers will inevitably need to last longer than ever before. This is why brands should look more seriously at this group of experienced marketers, says F1’s Amanda Fone.

“The marketing industry should look at a 48-year-old and think it can get 20 years out of this person. If you look at a 25-year-old, how likely are you to keep them in your organisation for more than six years? This group [of returners] are committed, determined, resourceful and they’re not going to be about to go anywhere,” she adds.

Once back in the workplace, Fone advises returners never to undervalue themselves or their talent, but also to not fixate on job titles as they often mean different things in different businesses.

Anyone looking to return to the workplace after a long-term career break should be prepared to be proactive and network with both new people and former contacts, advises Jan Sanghera. For brands, she argues, the number one priority is to look beyond the career gap and see the candidate as more than just a LinkedIn profile.

“There is a great pool of senior talent out there that could contribute an additional £1.7bn to the economy. Brands need to put all their hesitancy aside. It’s different, it’s new, but we live in a time that’s progressive and it’s about thinking in a progressive way.”