CWO Forum Report: Empowering Women to Work

CWO Forum: Empowering Women to Work at Any Stage and Any Age
Tuesday November 15th 2016
Committee Room 14 
The House of Commons

On the panel were:

  • Flick Drummond MP (Chair) – Member of Parliament for Portsmouth South and Chair of the Women and Work APPG
  • Damian Hinds MP – Minister of Employment at the Department of Work and Pensions, Member of Parliament for East Hampshire
  • Julie Baker ACIB – Head of Enterprise, NatWest & RBS
  • Julianne Miles – Co-Founder and Director of Women Returners
  • Siobhan Sheridan – People Director, NSPCC

Flick Drummond welcomed everyone to the meeting and explained that the very beautiful room we were using is the venue for both PLP and 1922 Backbench Committee meetings.
She introduced herself as the Member of Parliament for Portsmouth South. She was elected in 2015 and she explained that as Co-Chair (with Jess Philips MP) of the Women and Work APPG, she was passionate about the issue. The APPG is on the verge of publishing a report in January looking at the topic and she asked that if anyone has any evidence or examples of good practice they would like to submit then she would be grateful if you could send them to the APPG's inquiry:

The Women and Work APPG are conducting sessions into Public Meetings, Apprenticeships and Sexism in the Workplace. All details can be found on their website:

Damian Hinds, the Employment Minister at the Department for Work and Pensions spoke first, commending the CWO for all that they do; taking on some of the most important and difficult subjects such as sex exploitation and mental health issues and issues which need discussion in the public sphere.  Returning to work is another one of these challenges.

Damian has been the Minister of Employment since July and he related that employment figures since 2010 have been incredibly good, especially when the figures are compared with those of other EU countries.  

The question he is often asked is where is employment growth going to come from? There is a big opportunity to bring people who are not yet employed, such as those suffering from disabilities, ethnic minorities and women back into the workplace.

Damian stated that in order to encourage people back into the workplace, it needs to be fair: to make sure, to paraphrase the Prime Minister, that we have an economy and a society that works for everyone, not just the privileged few.

The gender pay gap is at the lowest level, although anything above zero is unacceptable.  Women have particular responsibilities in life caring both for older and younger generations. The Government has done a lot to make work, work. 

The Government has launched a Carers Strategy with the Department of Health in order to make sure that carers needs can be flexible enough to have caring responsibilities and work. Andy Briggs, the Chief Executive of Aviva has been recently appointed Champion for Older Workers to address the challenges for older people in the workplace. He will be working with employers and in general, those who make the employment decisions should be thinking about these issues.

The New Enterprise Allowance gives support to those who are wanting to start a new business: important when 63% of new businesses are started by women. Damian, as a father of young children, appreciates that families also go to extraordinary lengths to help each other to make often complicated family logistics work when there are children involved.

The Government has made a commitment to increase child care support for 3 – 4-year-olds and offering support for disadvantaged 2-year-olds.  Additionally, they are giving families with older children a top up to make childcare more affordable and the changes in Universal Credit will make a difference to those with lower incomes.   There is great progress being made and there is still much more to do.

Damian stressed the importance of eradicating the gender pay gap within a generation; allowing families to have the choice to decide when the right time is for them to return to work. Finally, he said that we need to closely examine the way jobs are designed for people returning to work, for example, offering managerial part-time jobs or jobs which follow the school term. 

Julie Baker has been in banking for over 30 years. She told us that she was the first female Deputy Manager in Jersey.  When she had her first child she did not expect to return to work after her maternity leave as in those days, Jersey had no nursery care provision. She did, however, persuade a friend who had a child of a similar age to become a childminder, which proved inspired as the friend then looked after Julie's child while she returned to the bank.  

Julie set out the two challenges she feels that women now face on returning to work: 1) Pension and 2) The reality of getting back into the workplace.
In Julie's current role she supports 1.1 million businesses, encouraging networking opportunities. She touched on the difficulties RBS had recently encountered and stressed the importance of RBS rebuilding its brand and bringing women into the fold.

RBS supports the 30% Club initiative of ensuring that at least 30% of Board Members are female. RBS is putting programmes in place to support females.  Where a leadership position is available they ensure that there will be a female on the shortlist as well as a female on the selection panel. This way they are driving a cultural shift.

Julie recounted that at Entry Level at RBS there are 50% females, so it is an objective for the bank not just to look at gender but to reflect our diverse communities as well.  They are exploring further ways to support women including looking at external programmes which include a ‘women in business' accreditation programme.  Women often choose to start-up business once they begin to consider returning to work.  20% of UK businesses are owned by female entrepreneurs. There needs to be a way to increase confidence in investing in businesses owned by women.

Entrepreneurial.spark is an opportunity hub partnered by a number of businesses, including NatWest & RBS which supports and encourages businesses, additionally Entrepreneurial Spark is championing female entrepreneurs across the UK which show a solid 50/50 split by gender.

Whenever Julie is asked for career advice she says that whatever the circumstances are, either at home or in the workplace, a good support network must be in place.  We also need to remember that the days of career progression on a ladder are over and that careers no longer go in straight lines, but it is more acceptable for a career to have dips and highs.

Julianne Miles

PWC and the 30% Club give data on women returners. The tide is changing slowly vis-a-vis the culture in the workplace.

Women Returners specialise in enabling women who have had a break to get back in the workplace at the level they were at before they left.  Work with individuals – 22,000 women are on a career break. Women Returners has a comprehensive website with resources to support and aid to put structures in place to overcome the challenges to get back in.  Women also have internal barriers which need to be broken down; Julianne prefers to call it a loss of ‘professional identity' rather than a lack of confidence, and Women Returners aim to focus women on their strengths.

Julianne reflected that however confident you are it is very hard to get a job again. She thinks that there is a three-fold bias: - 
•    Employers are often prejudiced against people who have had no recent experience, therefore a career break does act against you.  
•    There is concern that older people may be ‘out of date'
•    There is a bias against mothers and their ability to work at the level they were at prior to leaving

Responsibility for children or caring for older people, health issues or relocation are some of the more common reasons for women being forced to step out of the workplace.
Women Returners' report 550,000 female professionals take a break for caring responsibilities. Three-quarters of those want to return to their careers and two in five of those will actually return to lower skilled work.  280,000 of returners work below their potential.

Julianne asked what could be done to change the current situation?  She suggested championing returnships at a higher level – which would result in upskilling those who wanted to return.  It would make business, social and economic sense for the government to provide support focusing on the top level of business.

Siobhan Sheridan introduced herself explaining that she had left school at 16 and got her first job 30 years ago where in the interview she was asked three questions: was she married? Did she have a boyfriend:? Did she have children?  It was perfectly acceptable to ask questions in that vein then!

Over the years she has had experience working in all three sectors: private, public and now at the NSPCC, the not for profit sector.  The NSPCC is 80% female, so there the problem is reverse in that there can be said to be male diversity problem.

As the People Director at the NSPCCC, Siobhan was clear that the HR profession has got a significant role to play in encouraging women back into the workplace.  The profession needs to come up with solutions and it also needs to think about the reasons why people may be returning to work: perhaps because of divorce or bereavement, thus there needs to be a varied approach.

Siobhan believes that it is up to HR needs to start the conversation no one really wants. It needs to be the voice that puts out that people who are getting in the way of women returners is other women and not men.

Starting the conversation is very difficult and there have been years of people being terrified to start it. There needs to be help available to support Managers to make sensible decisions to enable them to support people to come back and stay in the workplace.

HR Recruitment are currently using methods to deal with volume and scale of job applications, but these methods do not support people who really need help to get into the workplace.

There was enough time to open the floor to questions where a number of members had the opportunity to ask the panel members, face to face, about concerns or personal experiences. A range of topics came up such as the need for employers to understand that people who have had a break bring with them a range of valuable transferable skills, no matter how they have been spending their time.

There was a discussion which asked whether women would be helped using blind recruitment – the removal of any gender reference in CVs – there were arguments both for and against, although it was suggested that women often write their applications in a way which undervalues their skills, so gender can often be guessed at by recruiters by the different ways they describe themselves. Consequently, women need to value their skills better and recruiters need to move away from the tick box approach commonly used.
During this discussion, it was said that when thinking about a second-career women are often attracted by something which they will find fulfilling. It was said that politics is a very good second career for women!

In order to make the transition into the workplace easier digital skills are key and it is important to offer relevant courses that people can take during their time away from the workplace. Flexibility is also fundamental for a successful modern workforce.  

For further information about the CWO, or to arrange an interview with anyone named in this release, please contact:

CWO Chairman
Tel: (020) 7984 8139