It’s 2016. The UK has its second female Prime Minister running the country, the US could potentially get its first female President later in the year, and there’s no shortage of positive role models for working women looking for inspiration.
This makes the revelation of Laura Hinton, head of people and an executive board member at professional services giant PwC, all the more shocking: that recruiters would still pass over somebody who has a gap in their CV, whether it be to take care of children, look after elderly relatives or whatever else would prevent them for carrying out a nine-to-five for a spell. This view pushes many women out of the race before they’ve even sat down in front of an interviewer.
“There’s something around almost – this is maybe not the right word to use – lazy recruitment, looking for people who are more obvious and easily available rather than thinking more creatively and thinking how do we demonstrate that these skills [learnt while on a career break],” said Hinton. “There’s an element of [thinking] there is a ready-made pool of candidates which makes life quite easy. But actually it happens to be male dominated, so, if we want more balance, we have to try harder.”
PwC is striving to meet diversity targets in a variety of ways, but its fledgling Back to Business programme is one of its shining stars.
Although it is open to all, PwC’s paid 16-week return to work scheme is designed to help senior professional women who have taken a career break of two or more years to ease themselves back into the workplace. Crucially, the work involved isn’t glorified tea runs but includes client-facing tasks.
The programme started in the firm’s traditionally male-dominated deals division last year. However, it proved so successful that it has been rolled out across the business, with the number of spaces on the scheme increasing tenfold. At the end of the programme’s first run, 75 per cent of those taking part were offered a permanent role at the firm.
“What we know is that when somebody leaves the organisation, whether male or female, at manager or senior manager [level], we are more likely to replace them with a man,” Hinton explained. “That’s partly because...men are often more active in the markets and it was proving more difficult to find senior women to come into senior positions.”
Hinton knows from conversations she has had with those on the scheme that gaps in their resume is a common reason for women shying away from job hunting. While some of it is down to self-confidence, it was also a message they were regularly being spun by recruiters.
“It’s important to remember that while women are out of the workplace, whether it be for two years or six years, they are accumulating skills,” said Hinton. “They are all really good life skills; organisation skills; project management skills. If we put it into corporate language, coming back into workplace, that’s all very relevant, and I think women were undervaluing the skills they had been generating.”
PwC did not let itself off easy and has put its own recruitment process under the spotlight as well, discovering even the smallest changes can reap big results.
Read more: A woman Prime Minister. So what?
Hinton explained that changing the box for the “Is this role suitable for flexible working?” question on the firm’s jobs checklist so that it is ticked as default has resulted in a great “quick win”. The vast majority of roles are now advertised in a way which doesn’t exclude those who would find full-time work a problem.
“Very few people untick that box and opt out so that change in itself has made a huge difference,” she said.
However, Hinton’s long-term goal for the Back to Business scheme is perhaps a surprising one.
“Ultimately I’d like us not to need it because we will have balanced recruitment at every level, in every team,” she said. “It will just be the way people are wired and the way things happen, rather than having to specifically focus on it.”