Gender Pay Gap Contents

6Making the most of women’s skills

191.We know that at a time of national skills shortages, there are 2.3 million women not in employment who would like to be working.150 Public and private sector organisations are struggling to fill vacancies and according to Neil Carberry from the CBI, its members are starting to think differently:

This is a country in which the labour force might be getting smaller over the next few decades. Talent retention, in the face of skills shortages that are already going on, is commercially important to our members. We are seeing a lot of that starting to happen, whether it is increased commitment to growing apprenticeship schemes at the entry level or looking at things like returnerships for parents who have perhaps taken some time out of the labour market.151

In this chapter we examine some of the barriers women face returning to the labour market after a period of not working. We then explore the most effective ways of facilitating their access to work at a suitable level.

The difficulties of returning to work

192.Women Returners Ltd, an organisation which runs programmes to get professional women back to work, points to a number of barriers to women’s access back into the labour market:

193.Fair Play South West, which campaigns for gender equality in the South West, says a large part of the pay gap for full time women above the age of 40 is the result of women moving from higher to lower paid occupations as they move back into employment after a period of absence from the labour market.153

194.The implications for the gender pay gap are further pronounced when the cumulative effects of time away from work are considered. As the Fawcett Society observe:

Many women experience multiple periods out of the labour market as they have a second or third child or go on to care for grandchildren. This can lead to an accumulation of disadvantage with women repeatedly having to work their way back into the labour market.154

195.The anecdotal experiences of discrimination against older women returners are backed up by evidence cited by the Employment Lawyers Association. They point to:

A recent study of the National Bureau of Economic Research in the United States [which] found “robust” evidence based on looking at more than 40,000 job applications of age discrimination in hiring female candidates and “considerably less evidence” for age discrimination against male candidates.155

As can be seen from the chart below, the rate of call backs for an interview on the basis of a CV falls much more steeply for women as they age than for men.

Table 2: % of callbacks for sales roles by age and gender







49 -51






Source: National Bureau of Economic Research

196.Professor Jill Rubery suggests this is not just down to discrimination at an individual level, but a wider cultural problem based on how we think about age and careers:

It is partly a problem of not being able to get back on track; somehow, if you haven’t made it by the time you are in your 30s, that is it, … yet we want people to work until their late 60s. Even if women did take a complete career break, coming back at 40 they still have a lot to offer. This is not really allowed in the current labour market organisation.156

197.Many women who have left the labour market due to caring responsibilities, or for other reasons, will need to return to paid employment. This may be because of pension shortfalls or changes in circumstances like divorce. Others will choose to return to work. In both cases, the skills and experience of this group of women can help improve UK productivity. The Government should therefore invest in supporting their smooth return to the labour market as a matter of urgency. In the following section we examine the most effective ways to achieve this.

Supporting women back into work

198.The benefits of helping women back into the labour market were raised by witnesses across public and private sector organisations. The Medical Women’s Federation highlighted the importance of enabling women GPs to return to Primary Care saying this “is extremely important in not wasting talented women doctors vital to the running of the NHS.” In their view:

Whilst re-training may cost an organisation money, any investment will be repaid as committed women over 40 are able to take on new roles or achieve promotion and improved status within the workforce.157

199.The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors also emphasised the importance of re-training in their sector:

We have seen that providing retraining, particularly after an extended absence, has proved to be successful in ensuring women not just return to the workplace but are able to continue on an upward career trajectory, further reducing the gender pay gap.158

200.We heard evidence from several witnesses, including UNISON and Age UK, on the difficulty that older women face in accessing training opportunities. The CIPD raised concerns about the “decline in funding in further education and adult skills in recent years” and the impact on older women in particular.

The recent introduction of Advanced Learning Loans for people 24 or over do provide a means for people to invest in their own skills at levels 3 and 4 … However there is evidence that the system isn’t working. Since its introduction, learning by the eligible age groups has fallen by around one third.159

201.These loans were identified by the Minister of State for skills as one of the main routes into retraining for women returners:

We dramatically expanded the availability of what is called Advanced Learner Loans … The availability of those loans has now been made much wider and the budget for them has been dramatically expanded. In a sense it will be for the individual to approach their local college and find the various courses available to them, if they feel the need to have a formal bit of training before returning to the workplace.160

202.Many of the witnesses we heard from felt a more coherent approach to supporting women returners was needed, rather than simply expecting them to find, and pay for, the right training opportunities for themselves. The solutions proposed included: women returner schemes; apprenticeships for older workers; and improving careers advice and guidance for older workers.

Women returner schemes

203.Several organisations, including F1 Recruitment, the Employment Lawyers Association and Close the Gap discussed proposed “returnships” as an evidence based solution to the difficulties faced by women coming back into the labour market. These schemes currently exist in the UK offered by individual companies. The Government recently demonstrated its support for them in an announcement by the Department of Transport:

As part of its drive to encourage a more diverse workforce in the transport sector, the government is also recommending all organisations of over 250 employees to implement a ‘returnship’ programme to make it easier for people, and women in particular, to return to work after time out.161

204.Women Returners explained how the returnships they offer operate:

Returnships are higher-level internships for experienced professionals which create a supported bridge back to senior roles. The programmes typically run for 10-12 weeks, are paid at a professional level and have the possibility of an ongoing role on completion.162

These schemes first began in the banking sector in the USA in 2008 and since 2014 Women Returners have expanded their use in the UK to other sectors including, IT, construction, law and accounting. The advantage of returnships to employers is access to a pool of talented individuals. For women they provide a clear route back into a job at the right pay and skill level.

205.The demand for a clear pathway for women returners was highlighted by F1 Recruitment who have run a Back2Businessship programme for women with marketing experience who have taken five years out of the labour market:

We were oversubscribed for our programme by over 3 times even though our advertisement for applicants only ran for 2 weeks in the Guardian media section and Marketing Magazine online. Many of the women who gained a place on our programme had been unsuccessfully applying for jobs advertised for months, if not years.163

206.We believe there is much greater scope for returnship schemes aimed at women working in a range of occupations. As Close the Gap point out, “there are a number of good practice examples in this area” which could be used to inform a wider roll out of similar initiatives.


207.The Government has committed to creating three million new apprenticeships starts in England between 2015 and 2020. From 2017 an Apprenticeship levy will be rolled out and paid by 2% of UK employers. It will raise over £3 billion a year by 2019–20, £2.5 billion of which will be spent on apprenticeships in England. Ensuring that older people have access to these apprenticeships and funding for them was raised by many contributors to our inquiry including the CMI; UKCES; and Business in the Community.

208.Apprenticeships for older workers were recommended by Baroness Altman in her role as Business Champion for Older Workers. However, concerns have been raised that the focus on apprenticeships for young people has come at the expense of training opportunities for older workers. The Government’s own impact analysis of its apprenticeship policy warned that mandating 20% off the job training for apprenticeships could have an adverse effect on older employees.

Older learners (aged 25+) are likely to be more affected by this policy change. The change is intended to be positive–ensuring older learners receive a more rigorous training experience but there is a risk that Apprenticeship opportunities for older learners will decrease. This risk will need to be monitored.164

209.The Minister of State for Skills placed significant emphasis on the role of apprenticeships in tackling the gender pay gap and helping older women return to work. He referred to “apprenticeships” 30 times during the course of giving oral evidence to us. Answering a question on woman returners he said:

I am going to perhaps sound as though my pet scheme, the apprenticeship levy, is the answer to every single problem in government, but I think it has a very important role to play in this.165

He explained that he expected the apprenticeship levy to lead to “many opportunities for apprenticeships to take people in their 40s and 50s to whole new skill levels and then hopefully to better earnings as a result.”166

210.However, Monika Queisser from the OECD warned us that apprenticeships, as currently set up, might not be the easiest scheme for women returners to participate in.

I also think that you have to work a little bit more on the demand side, by which I mean with women themselves, because it is not clear to many of them how much they will have to do from their side. Entering into a new apprenticeship is a lot of work, particularly if you have stopped working and still have children at home.167

211.Neil Carberry from the CBI also pointed out that it was important to ensure that apprenticeships were offered at higher levels which would make them much more suitable for women looking to upskill. He felt the new independent Institute for Apprenticeships, which will regulate the positions offered, could play a role in achieving this.

212.There is clear Government support for the use of apprenticeships as a mechanism to help women return to work. However, they will need to be better designed and branded to appeal to this group, particularly in terms of access. For women looking to increase their skills, or change occupation, apprenticeships could be a good solution. However, it should be remembered that many women returners will already have the skills and experience they need to function well in the job market and different measures are needed to help them.

Other strategies

213.A number of alternative strategies have been proposed to support women returners back into work. These include:

214.Improved careers advice for older workers was an idea raised several times during the course of our inquiry. UKCES cited recent evidence from a pilot project of mid-life career reviews for people between the age of 45 and 64:

Over 3,000 adults took part in reviews across England during the pilot period in 2013–2014. …More than 8 in 10 people felt their self-confidence and belief in their skills and experience were boosted, along with other positive outcomes. The mid-life career review has real potential for helping older women workers reconsider their options and broaden their horizons.168

215.Mid-life career reviews were also endorsed by Christopher Brook from Age UK who said they were “a very effective way …and very low cost”169 way of helping people plan their later working lives.

216.Many of the solutions proposed to support women returners show evidence of previous success. As such they need to be considered as part of a wider, national strategy on supporting women back into work.


217.We heard specific evidence on the difficulties teachers face returning to work after a break. This is particularly concerning given the recruitment crisis outlined in Chapter 4. Amanda Brown told us that there was little help available for teachers looking to re-enter the workforce:

Many of the unions—and we do as well—put on courses for returners to try and re orientate and upskill themselves to come back. … However, there is little from Government or employers around that. It is mainly coming from teacher organisations themselves.170

218.When questioned on this issue, the Secretary of State said:

There are people who do not need to have lots of courses to go back. They have the skills; they have the knowledge; and what they need is a supportive boss who is prepared to offer them the hours that will enable them to juggle their work. We absolutely make it very clear in the Department that is what we expect to see.171

On the specific question of whether it is up to headteachers to organise these schemes she said that “there are all sorts of national schemes offered by training providers. Schools themselves make the decision about the training that they wish to send their staff on.”172

219.It is surprising that in sectors where the UK needs the skills and experience of women who have left the workforce, more is not being done to help and encourage them back into work. Evidence suggests that it is not enough to hope that individual schools will reach out to women returners and facilitate their much needed re-entry into the profession.


220.Our key recommendation is that:

221.We also recommend that:

150 Business in the Community (GPG0008) para 10

151 Q39

152 Women Returners Ltd (GPG0022)

153 Fair Play South West (GPG0047)

155 Employment Lawyers Association (GPG0025)

156 Q15

157 Medical Women’s Federation (GPG0043)

158 RICS (GPG0032)

159 Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) (GPG0041)para 14

160 Q249

161 Department for Transport Record investment in transport network used to guarantee apprenticeships press release 28 January 2016

162 Women Returners Ltd (GPG0022)

163 F1 Recruitment (GPG0009)

165 Q244

166 ibid

167 Q46

168 UK Commission on Employment and Skills (GPG0037)

169 Q133

170 Q84

171 Q224

172 Q225

© Parliamentary copyright 2015

Prepared 16 March 2016