How are NZ companies supporting mums returning to the work force?

We look into what Kiwi businesses are doing to encourage mums back into the workforce – and what women can do to help themselves.

Mum-of-three Kathleen Hamilton can run a household with military precision, effectively juggling school and kindy drop-offs with cooking, cleaning and mountains of washing. But when it came to the 42-year-old finding a paying job after eight years of raising kids, even the local supermarket didn’t see her as a suitable employee.

“That was when I got really upset and down about it,” recalls Kathleen, who prior to becoming a mum enjoyed roles in administration and sales.

“It was a job as a grocery assistant, and when I asked about it at the checkout, without saying in so many words, she told me it was more of a male role.”

Sadly, Kathleen’s experience is in no way an isolated one – few would deny mothers returning to work after a career break are the most at risk of experiencing the full force New Zealand’s gender inequality.

The Growing Up in New Zealand study of more than 6000 mums revealed last year that of the 35 per cent not in work by the time their child was four, one in five were seeking it. That equates to an unemployment rate among the group of 9.7 per cent – almost double the nationwide level of 4.5 per cent.

With around 69 per cent of New Zealand’s female population mothers, those being penalised by parenthood come from all industries – from law to manufacturing, education to medicine – and make up a veritable army of very capable women with the ability to make a real difference to the Kiwi workforce.

Equal employment opportunities commissioner Dr Jackie Blue says it simply isn’t good enough – and is frustrated at recruiters’ lack of foresight when it comes to mothers.

“These women are CEOs of their families for goodness sake,” she says. “They’re flexible, they’re adaptable, they work as a team and they’re good problem solvers. These are not necessarily being seen as skills – and they bloody well should be.”

So what are Kiwi companies doing to tap into this resource? And what steps are women taking to push back against the roadblocks they encounter when trying to return to work?

There is no doubt returning to paid employment after having children is a daunting process – and one that is compounded when it involves a new role as opposed to the conclusion of maternity leave.

From the seemingly inconsequential concerns – ‘How will I wear heels five days a week again?’; to the logistical – ‘How am I going to juggle nine-to-five with school hours?’; to intellectual challenges – ‘I have no idea how to use the latest software’; it can cause more sleepless nights than a newborn baby.

Overseas, a successful model has evolved in the form of returnships. First introduced by Goldman Sachs in 2008, it’s a concept whereby business offer those who have been on a career break a form of high-level, paid internship.

Typically lasting between three and six months, returnships allow women who were once in senior roles to gain experience, while employers can assess their suitability for a permanent role. In the past 12 months the concept has started to gain traction here.

Last spring the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) launched a pilot programme in Wellington, Return to IT. Run in partnership with several companies including major banks and software companies, it aims to match women who have taken career breaks of between two and five years with job opportunities in the digital technology space.

In launching the programme, Kim Connolly-Stone, MBIE policy director, said the initiative was about addressing the gender imbalance in the technology sector.

“Return to IT is about giving women IT professionals who are thinking about returning to work the opportunity to meet employers who have committed to making their transition back to work as smooth as possible.”

Which is wonderful… as long as you have skills in digital technology and live in the capital. But what about the rest of us?

NEXT contacted some of New Zealand’s biggest businesses in a variety of industries to establish whether any offer an independent form of returnship, and only found one currently running something similar – and arguably better.

Vodafone launched ‘ReConnect’ a year ago, a programme tailored to those who have been out of the workforce for an extended period of time. The company pairs them up with a ‘buddy’ within the organisation for support, and a mentor for guidance.

Head of human resources Katie Williams explains it also allows ReConnectors to work a four day week but get paid for five for the first six months. Unlike most overseas returnships, it is a full-time, indefinite contract.

“We did it because we know there are millions of women who could be contributing positively to the global economy, and who for various reasons aren’t able to,” Katie adds. “ReConnect is an extension of our desire to get a gender-balanced organisation, but also to beat the tight labour market; we knew there was untapped potential out there.”

Marketing manager Amber Quinnell, who prior to having her daughter worked for a major bank, was the pilot participant in the Vodafone programme.

“I took a career break after Jessie was born, and I enjoyed the time off with her,” recalls Amber, who while career driven, was only too aware that becoming a mum could halt her climb up the corporate ladder. “I assumed I may have to take a step down to be there for Jessie. Flexibility was more important to me than the role.”

The 37-year-old believes she got the best of both worlds through the ReConnect programme. As well as being eased into the role with mentoring and encouragement, her hours are 6.30am until 3pm, and she works from home once a week.

“The flexibility and support I have had has actually made me a better leader – I have a lot more understanding for others,” reveals Amber, who outside of work has set up a Facebook group Working Mums NZ, a network for hundreds of women. “And I want to work hard here, because I know the organisation is supporting me to do the things I love.”

Given Vodafone has enjoyed such success, it should follow that other Kiwi companies are jumping on the bandwagon. Unfortunately not.

Some are considering it; The Warehouse Group, which has 12,000 employees, is currently developing something similar, and is planning a trial at their support office in the coming months.

Others feel that logistically, it just doesn’t work in New Zealand. Professional services multinational EY, who have 800 Kiwi employees, have launched a 12-week returnship programme in the UK, but have no plans of introducing it here.

Partner Susan Doughty, who is also a pay equity advisor, explains it is simply down to economies of scale.

“It’s a population issue,” she says, adding that the New Zealand operation is focused on being an inclusive workplace for women, and offers flexible working hours.

“In the UK we’re talking about a talent pool of hundreds, here we have maybe three or four who we can tap into. A structured program like that is probably not as cost effective for us to run as it might be in larger markets.”

Katie admits it is a big financial investment that would not work for all businesses. “A company has to be of a certain size to afford it,” she says, adding that Vodafone has 3000 employees across the country.

“But I would love to see what we’re doing become common practice – because why wouldn’t you tap into what is a real source of great performance?”

While there might be a dearth of employers wanting to give mothers a helping hand back into the workforce, recruitment specialists are increasingly catering for this potential goldmine of talent.

Vic Jack is one of the brains behind Maslow, an innovative recruitment company with a strong female focus.

Vic sees Maslow as a stepping stone for women, that builds confidence in those seeking work before matching them with employers who are open to flexible working arrangements.

For the single mum of two it is as much a passion project as a business, as she has personal experience of feeling under-valued while wrestling self-doubt.

“Post-kids I was questioning, am I good enough?” recalls the 47-year-old. “And even if I do apply for these roles are they going to want me if I still want to be taking the kids to athletics on a Friday night? I don’t want other women to feel I like I did.”

Prior to launching Maslow last year, Vic, who also runs a motivational blog and podcast Be Your Own Heroine, conducted a survey of 200 women to establish how they feel about their careers.

“The feedback was enormous in terms of them not doing the job they want to do, but the one they can do because it fits their family situation better,” she reveals. “Something local that they can do with their eyes closed, but something that is not their passion.”

As well as giving these women self-assurance through everything from career and lifestyle coaching to CV help, Vic is on a mission to persuade employers to ditch the “old-school approach to bums on seats”. She argues that allowing mums to work remotely and manage their own hours – so they can do the school pick-up then continue to work once the kids are in bed – just makes good business sense.

“When you’ve got remote workers it reduces overheads, and instead of people spending three hours in traffic they’re spending three hours being productive,” Vic explains.

For some, the way to get around organisations’ lack of flexibility with their employees is by contracting. This usually involves working for a set period of time on a specific project, with pay often by the hour.

It was the route HR exec Julie Simpson decided on. Having spent six years at home with son Jack, the 46-year-old felt apprehensive about returning to work, so decided contracting or consulting would be her best option.

“That way people could get to know me and see I could deliver and work flexibly, before I engaged in a permanent arrangement,” explains Julie, who was a single mum at the time. “It also gave me the ability to get myself back up to speed.”

Hearing about an opportunity at The Warehouse Group, working across multiple projects in their HR department, she became a contractor for 20 hours a week during school hours for two months.

“That gave the company the opportunity to decide whether or not it was working, and it gave me the opportunity to opt out if I couldn’t balance the commitments with Jack,” she says.

The arrangement was a success – “from day one I felt like I had myself back” – and ultimately Julie took a permanent 32-hour-a-week, flexible role and now is acting chief people officer.

There’s no doubt that for a sizeable proportion of career-break mums, the issue is less about lack of opportunity and more about inner doubt.

This is where study can be a great option for getting back up to speed and building nerve without being thrown in at the deep end.

Corporate high flyer Paula Gair worked as a digital consultant in Europe for more than a decade before returning to New Zealand and taking a five-year career break to focus on her daughter, Nina.

“I tried to stay connected in the areas I’m interested in – technology and social change – but I was really determined to spend as much time as possible with Nina in those early years,” the 44-year-old explains.

With Nina starting school last year, Paula felt the time was right to return to work. She was keen to launch her own business, but felt out of touch with the technology industry and questioned her own relevance.

“When you’re home for an extended period of time you do lose a bit of confidence in your ability,” she says. “Not because your ability has changed but because you haven’t been putting it into practice on a regular basis.”

Paula’s solution came in the form of a Masters of Applied Practise run by the Tech Futures Lab – a learning hub which offers practical alternatives to MBAs. She found the 50-week course a means of both refreshing her skills and also fast-tracking her new business.

“If I had decided to start a business without this kind of structure, it would have taken me a lot longer to get to the same point,” says Paula, who this year will launch Project CyberSafe, an enterprise which helps families with online safety, privacy and cyber security.

“Various components of the course – like presenting to the group – force you into things much more quickly, but in a very safe, supportive and encouraging environment. You think, this is what I used to do, all is not lost, I’m back!”

The study route is one wholeheartedly recommended by business doyenne Joan Withers, who has long been an outspoken supporter of gender equality in the corporate world.

“We’ve never had a better time to be able to access learning online, or short courses,” says the former stay-at-home mum, who completed an MBA in her 30s and has had a lengthy career in corporate governance. “If you really want to differentiate yourself, then look at it and say, ‘What am I missing that I would benefit from having in my repertoire of skills and experience?'”

While she might be a force to be reckoned with today, the chairwoman of Mercury Energy and The Warehouse Group and director of ANZ is sympathetic to those lacking the confidence to return to their careers.

After spending six years out of work following the birth of her son Jamie in the 1970s, she admits she struggled when she first got a part-time job in media advertising.

“It was paradoxical that I could go out and sell advertisements and talk to clients, but I was so self-conscious when it came to scenarios within the business – for example sales meetings,” recalls Joan, who last year released a book about her rise to the top, A Woman’s Place. “It is very hard.”

Her advice is that returning mothers research the companies they are consid-ering working for. While few offer returnships, she believes big businesses are now more aware of the need to offer incentives like mentorships and flexible hours.

“I think most women are eminently capable of going back into the workforce and succeeding if they’ve got the support around them they need,” she explains, adding that women who can afford it shouldn’t be embarrassed about hiring help with domestic chores – “I buy everything in”.

“It’s about doing due diligence on the companies they’re going back into – and making sure whoever they’re going to be reporting to is supportive.”

In the future, businesses won’t be able to escape being more proactive in helping women back into the workforce.

Economists warn that with an ageing population, we’re heading for a major labour shortage; the fact 44 per cent of GPs are planning to retire within the next 10 years is just the tip of the iceberg. With that deficit will come a desperate need for workers.

“It’s going to happen sooner rather than later with the state of our economy, and we’re going to need every single person who can work to work,” warns Dr Blue. “We’re going to have to nurture and cherish all our workers, and that means working mums. Businesses are going to have to encourage women to stay in the workforce – and treat them well. They are going to have to get smart quickly and be the employer of choice.”

And it’s thanks to a smart business that Kathleen Hamilton did find a great job after her eight years on a career break. The Aucklander became one of Vodafone’s new ReConnectors, working four days a week as an administration officer.

“I was nervous about the interview, but also really excited, because I was doing something for me,” explains Kathleen. She later went on to score another great role in the retail sector. “It now feels like, whoa, there’s another side to me. I’m not just about washing, cooking and Mainly Music.”

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