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Women returners

The £1 billion career break penalty for professional women



Despite the gains the UK has made in improving female labour market outcomes, there's still significant underutilised potential: one such group is professional women returning from career breaks. Our new research shows that addressing the career break penalty could deliver gains of £1.7 billion to the UK economy.

You can explore key findings from the research below, as well as illustrative examples showing the different experiences of women returning to work. You can also download the full report where we discuss the challenges professional women face when returning to work after career breaks, what businesses can do to tackle them, and the gains from addressing the career break penalty.


Addressing the career break penalty for women could boost the UK economy by £1.7 billion #womenreturners
427,000 female professionals returning to work

Key findings

• Around 427,000 female professionals, including directors, engineers, scientists, researchers, doctors, lawyers and accountants, who are currently on career break want to return to the workforce in the future.

• Three in five professional women (or around 249,000) returning to the workforce are likely to move into lower-skilled or lower-paid roles, experiencing an immediate earnings reduction of up to a third.

• 29,000 women who return to the workforce on a part-time basis will be underemployed, meaning that they would prefer to work more hours if flexible working opportunities were made more widely available.

• Taken together, two-thirds of (or around 278,000) professional women could be working below their potential when they return to the workforce.

• Addressing the career break penalty could boost female earnings by £1.1 billion annually, equivalent to £4,000 per woman.

• The multiplier effect from the higher earnings and spending power of these women generates additional gains to the UK economy of £1.7 billion.

• Business action, including combating the negative bias towards CV gaps, increasing the availability of part-time and flexible opportunities and helping women transition back to work, can help address the career break penalty.


3 in 5 returning professional women could end up in lower-skilled jobs



Addressing the career break penalty for women could boost UK GDP by £1.7bn



Our research only shows a part of the story: the experiences of professional women returning to work are highly varied, depending on their own personal circumstances, their work preferences and the nature of the industries they return to. We've provided four illustrative examples below of the experiences of hypothetical professional women returning to work. 

Meet Michelle, a former City banker returning from a career break

“After taking a two-year career break, I started looking for management jobs in banking through a headhunting firm. But I was told that employers would not be interested in considering my application due to the gap in my work experience and not having the right contacts. This is despite having worked in the sector for over six years as a senior relationship manager before my break. I’m not alone: many of my friends who are mothers have had their experiences dismissed because of the gap.”

Meet Anisha, a lawyer working in London

“I had a successful career as a solicitor at a City law firm before taking time out to care for my elderly mother. Getting a part-time job in the sector after my three-year career break in the sector has been really challenging. I’ve had to settle for an in-house role for which I am overqualified! I consider myself lucky: many women I know in my situation have had to settle for administrative roles.”

Meet Li Kim, a former engineer looking for flexible opportunities

“I am currently working part-time for a specialist engineering firm. I don’t mind working full-time but it needs to be flexible so that I can balance both work and childcare. But these are few and far in between, especially at my level!”

Meet Natalie, a strategy consultant returning to the industry

“I have been offered a permanent role after my eight-week return to work programme with a leading strategy consultancy. I was nervous about applying at first as I was on a five-year break, but the programme has really helped build my confidence and has helped restart my career. I would highly recommend these programmes to women thinking about returning to work after breaks.”

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