Pursuing gender equality through ‘return to work’ programmes

Tracy Burrell is senior HR business partner at Ramboll

Talented professionals may choose to pause their career for a variety of reasons, but returning to work after a prolonged absence can be a daunting prospect, with unclear pathways for doing so.

Research from AIG Life found that women are three times more likely than men to take a career break for childcare reasons. So, by failing to support those who are looking to go back to work, we not only risk losing valuable talent but also risk undermining the construction sector’s drive for diversity.

In seeking to bring back this talent, at Ramboll, we are now in the second year of our Returners Programme, after its pilot launch last year yielded encouraging results. It gives applicants with prior industry experience, who have been on a career break for at least 12 months, a route back into the sector by offering flexible opportunities and support to ease the transition.

In pursuit of gender equality

While this initiative is designed to provide a seamless reintegration into the industry for both men and women, we have found it to be especially effective in our pursuit of greater gender equality and representation across the business. In last year’s programme, we welcomed seven women into the business in roles ranging from project management to sustainability.

“From the outset, it was important to us that candidates did not fear the dreaded question, ‘can you explain this gap in your CV?’”

Our successful candidates include Naz Jones, an engineering project manager and electrical engineer, who was forced to give up her previous role due to the conflicting demands of a young family and the international travel and inflexible hours of the job. Naz is now a project manager in the UK buildings division at Ramboll. Thanks to our flexible and hybrid working policies, she can fit her new role around her family’s needs.

From the outset, it was important to us that candidates did not fear the dreaded question, ‘can you explain this gap in your CV?’. We wanted the programme to acknowledge that career breaks are an increasingly common feature in a candidate’s history. We took this as an opportunity to evaluate what new skills and experiences our returners could bring to their roles, however they had spent their time out of the industry.

The assessment and selection process reflects this approach, which focuses on the full breadth of each candidate’s experience and credentials.

Unlocking candidates’ full potential

We recognised early on that integrating work returners as though they were lateral hires from an immediately preceding role would limit their ability to unlock their full potential.

To address this, we partnered returning talent experts Inclusivity Partners, which worked with us to establish an empowering programme that is robust and up to the task. It includes additional training, one-to-one sessions with a specialist return-to-work coach and guidance from an internal mentor.

Equally important is the training and advice provided to the managers and teams that our returners will be joining. The onboarding process for an experienced professional who has been out of the industry for at least a year requires a different approach. As such, setting reasonable expectations for managers and clearly outlining what success would look like has proved integral to ensuring a smoother journey for everyone, and maximising the value of the programme.

We believe it is important for recruitment and onboarding to keep up with the changing world of workplace models and cultures, and we see these evolutions as opportunities to address the challenges still faced by the sector with regard to gender representation.

To achieve a diverse workforce, it is important to examine different ways of approaching recruitment. We have been thrilled with the positive impact that our Returners Programme has had at Ramboll, but there is still a long way to go. As we continue on this journey, we are showing that high-calibre talent isn’t always found in the traditional places.

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