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Getting back to work after children: how easy is it for women?

Bea Mitchell, 23 July 2013

Both working mothers and stay at home mothers suffer self-induced guilt and inner conflicts, as well as scrutiny and judgement from others, but what obstacles do they face if they choose to return to work after some time away?

Mumsnet, an online community of parents sharing support and advice, held a WorkFest conference in London last month, with the aim of helping mothers find their path back to work. Co-founder and Chief Executive of Mumsnet, Justine Roberts, said “The idea of WorkFest is to provide help to those looking to go back to work or to reshape their working lives after a career break. Sometimes what’s needed is a bit of inspiration and the confidence to know you can build a successful career after a break”.

Gaby Hinsliff, columnist, author and blogger, left her job in 2009 to spend more time with her son. Chairing a debate at the Mumsnet WorkFest, she said “Alpha-returners like Allen are increasingly coming back not just into any old job, but into decidedly stellar careers”. Lily Allen, who called her return to the stage after a four year break a “mumback”, said “I’ve had two kids, and as much as I love that, I’m never going to be the sort of person who sits at home all day playing with plastic toys”. Hinsliff, who interviewed several women she said had “bounced back”, looked to Ruby McGregor-Smith, Chair of the Women’s Business Council, who took 18 months out, and Professor Margaret Rayman, who took 17 years out before going back into science and making imperative breakthroughs in nutrition.

She also acknowledged, however, that a comeback is not always easy, and that it can be very hard if you’ve been away, especially for a longer period of time, due to personal, technological and workplace changes. Many mothers find it such a daunting prospect that consultants and career clinics are becoming more and more popular.

Nevertheless, Hinsliff gives the following reasons for why it may be getting easier:

1. Women are having children later and are therefore established in their fields, having built solid reputations by the time they quit
2. Social media is helpful for finding your old contacts and reactivating your network
3. Working life is getting longer, which helps in that women who have taken time out are less likely to run out of time

Between 2009 and 2012, unemployment among women increased by almost 20% (The Fawcett Society) whilst 57% of women are employed below their potential. Men outnumber women by four to one in parliament and by five to one in the cabinet and only 17% of directors are female in FTSE 100 companies. The pay gap between men and women in full time work is 10% and 34% in part time work.

If employers embraced flexible conditions, argued McGregor-Smith, Britain could create jobs for many of the 2.4 million non-working women who would like to work over the next five years. Businesses need to be flexible and employers need to do more as the internet and technological developments have made it easier for mothers to work from home. Childcare costs can be crippling for households, a problem that would be eliminated if working from home and flexibility was available. Lorraine Candy, editor-in-chief of UK Elle, mother of four and supporter of WorkFest, tweeted that flexible working was “invaluable to your business”.