Claudia Filsinger-Mohun - June 2017

  • Career Return Programmes – an opportunity to improve gender diversity?

    A small number of career return programmes, primarily aimed at mothers returning to work after parenting breaks, have been in existence for a number of years in a range of sectors and professions such as banking, legal, teaching and nursing. In March 2017 the UK government announced £5 million to support those returning to work after long career breaks. While this amount is very small, it is a first step to bring career returns more into the general spotlight. Although these programmes are open to both men and women, the government announcement emphasised that the primary aim is to reach all levels of management and industries where women are underrepresented.

    Best practices in supporting individuals with their career return are still emerging. Past academic studies with women returning to work after maternity breaks point to the complexity of career returns even after relatively short career breaks (Bussell, 2009; Brown and Kelan, 2013; Filsinger -Mohun, 2012; Vitzthum, 2016). This is echoed by a qualitative study exploring the impact of longer term career breaks on professional women’s career identity. As career breaks are presenting identity challenges, adaptability and identity development are important competencies for women returning to work and need to inform support interventions before, during and after career breaks (Majid, 2015).

    Support for career returners is offered on an individual or an organisational level. Individual interventions are typically aimed at developing IT and career management skills, often delivered as group interventions by the government, professional bodies and employer conferences during the employment search period. Organisations support career returners with a variety of measures as part of formal career return programmes, usually in the form of fixed term work placements, commonly known as “returnships” (3-12 months long) or with programmes that offer direct entry into permanent roles. Typically they are open to both women and men, but cohorts are usually predominantly female. A study evaluating return to work schemes for women in the UK high-tech industry found benefits in complementing group with individual interventions to support the career returners with an interconnected web of impact through diverse support measures (Panteli and Pen, 2009). Typically career return programmes include onboarding and ongoing support such as workshops, mentoring, buddying, group and individual coaching for the participants. Frequently, line managers are offered training on how to work with career returners. The importance of this has been confirmed by a recent survey by the The Executive Coaching Consultancy Ltd (2017) with 200 career returners (96% female; 48% aspiring returners, 53% had resumed their careers): Line manager support was identified as the most important factor for a successful return.

    In summary, organisations increasingly create career opportunities for career returners. Legislation changes on flexible working and gender pay reporting, as well as the increased focus of employers on diversity has created a more supportive environment for career returners. The common factor of career returners is having been on an extended career break. However, the reasons for taking the career break, the nature of the break and the motivation to return are diverse and returners therefore need individualised support.

    Future research can inform best practice for both returnships and direct entry recruitment into permanent roles by exploring the advantages and limitations of either model. For example, by increasing the understanding of women’s experience of the time limited returnship model. This model requires the management of the complexities of the career return while building a reputation in a new organisation quickly to find a permanent internal role to transfer to at the end of the returnship. Longitudinal studies are needed to evaluate if long-term career re-engagement is achieved through career return programmes, resulting in a sustained increase of women’s participation in the labour market. As there is some indication that career returners return to roles with more flexibility, but less remuneration and seniority (Executive Coaching Consultancy, 2017) the impact of career return programmes on the gender pay gap would also need to be evaluated. Lastly, practitioners have to justify the investment in career return programmes and need more data to support the business case to their employers through both qualitative and quantitative data. Areas that could be explored include cost of hire, employee loyalty, tenure and achieving employer branding and gender diversity objectives.

    Claudia Filsinger-Mohun ( is a Lecturer at Oxford Brookes Business School and a Career Return Coach with The Executive Coaching Consultancy Ltd.


    Bussell, J. (2008) 'Great Expectations: Can maternity coaching affect the retention of professional women?', International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, Special Issue No. 2, pp. 14-26.

    Brown, S. and Kelan, E. (2013) ‘Managing maternity: maternity coaching, therapeutic culture and individualisation’. Paper presented at the 13th annual conference of the British Academy of Management, University of Liverpool, September 2013.

    The Executive Coaching Consultancy Ltd (2017) Bringing the talent back to the workforce, available at

    Filsinger-Mohun, C. (2012) 'How can maternity coaching influence women’s re-engagement with their career development', International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, Special Issue, No 6, pp. 46 - 56, January.

    Majid, N. (2015) An exploration of professional women’s experiences of taking career breaks and the implications for career identity, Research Project as part of MSc Occupational Psychology, Birkbeck College, University of London, 2015.

    Panteli, N. and Pen, S. (2009) ‘Empowering women returners in the UK high-tech industry’ Personnel Review, Vol. 39, Issue1, pp. 44-61.

    Vitzthum, C. (2016) How can maternity-return coaching complement structural organisational benefits? MA Dissertation, Oxford Brookes University.