Skip to main content
Home » Women in STEM » End the career break penalty for women returners to STEM
Women in STEM Q2 2024

End the career break penalty for women returners to STEM

iStock / Getty Images Plus / jacoblund

Julianne Miles

CEO and Co-Founder, Career Returners

The Career Returners Indicator 2024 found that two-thirds of women professionals returning to work after a career break are finding it extremely challenging.

Many women who are looking to resume their careers after a pause for childcare, eldercare or health reasons are STEM professionals. Despite their high level of skills and experience, they face widespread recruiter bias against candidates without recent experience and a pervasive loss of professional confidence.

There is no quick fix to end this ‘career break penalty,’ but there are proven solutions.

Break free from career break penalty

One study respondent explained: “The gap in my CV apparently washes years of experience away.” Too often, these women returners feel forced to retrain, start again at the bottom or drop out of the workforce altogether.

There is no quick fix to end this ‘career break penalty,’ but there are proven solutions. I urge all STEM employers in Ireland to follow this 10-point action plan.

Ten steps to become a returner-Inclusive employer

  1. Learn about returners: Seek out returner stories to challenge your stereotypes that returners have lost their skills or are not ambitious.
  2. Remove screening bias: Check that your application process is not screening out candidates just because of their CV gap (2021 Harvard Business School research in the UK/USA/Germany found 43–48% of applicant tracking systems filter out gaps over six months).
  3. Reduce advertising bias: Make sure your job adverts are only asking for ‘current/up-to-date knowledge’ or ‘recent experience’ if this is essential.
  4. Reduce interview bias: For competency-based interviews, adapt your questions to not ask for ‘recent work examples.’ Focus technical interviews on skills rather than knowledge. 
  5. Promote returners as a strong candidate pool: Put women returners on the radar for your business leaders as a high-calibre talent pool, bringing a wealth of skills and experience, a fresh perspective and cognitive diversity.
  6. Target returner applicants: Add ‘We welcome applications from candidates who have taken a career break’ to job adverts.
  7. [If you’re a larger employer] Run a returnship programme: Use a tested route to accelerate returner hiring, and create a peer support network. 
  8. Provide returner training to line managers: Educate managers on hiring and supporting candidates returning from career breaks.
  9. Support returner hires: Provide training, mentoring and coaching to help returners rebuild confidence and more rapidly re-integrate.
  10. Champion returner successes: Widely share examples of your successful returner hires.

In this way, you will tap into the wealth of skilled and experienced female STEM talent that is currently being wasted, benefiting both your organisation and society.

Next article