22 Jul 2015
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Supporting a Return to Work for Women Execs

UK consultancy helps companies create a path back from extended career breaks
by Constantine von Hoffman

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For women executives, having both career and family can mean making hard choices. When it comes to caring for family, more women typically choose to take on this responsibility than men, and, in doing so, accept that it might not be possible to keep their career progressing at the same rate. Some women opt for the so-called mommy track, continuing to work but foregoing promotions and career moves that would make it harder to be with their families.

For many, however, even that isn’t an option.

“I just felt I couldn’t hold everything all together,” says Katerina Gould (MBA 1990), cofounder of Women Returners, which helps professional women in the United Kingdom go back to work after extended career breaks. “When my mom became very seriously ill, I had to devote my time to caring for her. The thing that was easiest to drop was the career. I had young kids and my mom, and taking care of them really became a full-time career.”

This was in the 1990s, when Gould had a management position in marketing and strategy at Reuters and before family-friendly HR policies, such as job-sharing, had caught on with many companies. She returned to work part time after her first maternity leave—the first executive at Reuters to work in this way—but after her mother’s illness, she was unable to combine both jobs.

This break gave Gould the opportunity to reflect on where next to take her career. While her children were young, she trained in counseling and psychotherapy. She realized that she wanted to use her new skills in the business world. After training as an executive coach, she set up the executive coach and career consultancy Thinking Potential. Working with women who faced the same type of career challenges she had faced made her realize the great need for such a service. That led to her teaming up with Julianne Miles, a former business executive turned psychologist, to found Women Returners.

“What we also knew was that there was a lot of demand on businesses to diversify their senior management and replenish the talent pipeline, in order to get more women on boards,” says Gould. “The issue being that if you don’t have women executives, you’re not going to have the right candidates to move to boards.”

In 2012, the United Kingdom implemented a mandatory “comply or explain” system through the UK Corporate Governance Code, similar to those used in Norway and Finland, to address the disproportionally male makeup of corporate boards. The code allows boards to implement their own gender-diversity policies and explicitly identifies merit as a consideration. Companies are not required to follow the code, but they must publish an annual report explaining why they don’t. Currently all of the FTSE 100 companies have at least one woman on their boards, with 263 women holding director’s positions, 100 more than in 2011, according to a study by the Cranfield University School of Management.

“We sat down and thought, We know there’s a great pool of women. We’re connected to a lot of them. We know businesses really need these women for promotion reasons and also skills reasons. How about we see if we can bring the two together?” says Gould.

Women Returners works with companies and professional partnerships to create paths back to work for women who want to return to the corporate world, with much of the focus placed on “returnships.” Returnships are internships for older workers, which typically last 10 to 12 weeks. They were created by Goldman Sachs in 2008 and can give returning workers a much-needed show of recent experience at an executive level.

“We saw returnship programs as a great solution and thought, Let’s see if we can convince UK businesses that this is something that is worthwhile and valuable and useful for them,” says Gould. “We work really hard to educate and inform businesses that, here’s a practical solution to the issues you’re facing, and we’re getting a significant amount of interest.”

Recently, Women Returners placed seven women, each of whom had taken an extended career break, with an organization conducting a major engineering and construction project in London. “It’s not a traditional sector, and we’ve managed to introduce into that area some engineers, a lawyer, finance professionals from a banking background, and a communications expert,” she says.

And why are companies so quick to take on these women?

“These women have reached a certain level of seniority in their careers,” says Gould. “They’ve got significant experience. When they come back into the workplace, they’ve got all of that and they’ve got some maturity and a fresh perspective that’s acquired through managing different things.

“They are going to be more stable than other employees,” Gould adds. “They’re not going to try to jump up the corporate ladder by moving from employer to employer every couple years. They’re not going to take the information and go off and start their own business. They’re committed to the organization where they’re working and they are really motivated to continue with their careers.”

Photo by Douglas Fry/Piranha Photography

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Class of MBA 1990, Section B
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