Research Data Summary

Career Breaks & Returning to Work

Data on people on career break:
  • Research commissioned by Vodafone in 2016 indicated that there are an estimated 96 million skilled women aged 30–54 on career breaks worldwide, with around 55 million of them having experience at mid-manager level or above.
  • 1.5m UK women and 0.2m men are not in paid employment as they are looking after family and home (ONS, 2023). Note that this excludes the many mothers/carers who receive small amounts of paid income. The 1.5m is down from 2.0m in 2014, when we founded Women Returners
  • 64% of UK mothers with pre-school children (aged 0-4) are in paid employment, compared with 93% of fathers. This rises to 75% for mothers with children at primary school (aged 5-10) and 81% with children at secondary school (aged 11-18). London has one of the lowest employment rates for women with children: 57% for pre-school children (Labour Force Survey Q2 2016)
  • In Ireland, there are 90,000 people economically inactive and available for work, 26-28% for caring reasons (Central Statistics Office, Q4 2023)
  • US research (Center for Work Life Policy, 2009) found that 31% of highly-qualified US women (and 37% of mothers) took a voluntary extended career break

UK Government Equalities Office research (2019) on women’s employment pathways after having children found that:

  • 17% of women leave employment completely in the five years following childbirth, compared to 4% of men
  • Mothers who leave employment completely are three times more likely to return to a lower-paid or lower-responsibility role than those who do not take a break.
Women Returners Research report published Nov 2016 by PwC in conjunction with Women Returners and 30% Club
  • 550,000 professional women in UK are on extended career breaks for caring reasons
  • 420,000 want to return to work at some point
  • 2/3 (280,000) could be working below their potential when they return
  • Addressing the career break penalty could increase annual earnings by £1.1bn with an overall impact on the economy of £1.7bn
Recruiter biases against career returners:
  • Harvard Business School 2021 research in the USA, UK and Germany found that 43-48% of employers with applicant tracking systems filtered out CVs of skilled candidates with CV gaps of over 6 months, for that reason alone: “Our research indicated that employers believe applicants with more recent experience are more likely to have better professional skills.”
  • US research (Weishaar, 2021;2018) found that full-time caregiver parents who take time away from their careers receive 50% less CV callbacks (requests for interview/information) than parents who are unemployed for the same length of time, due to cognitive biases assuming they are ‘inferior workers’
  • US study (2013) on unemployment found that managers prefer to hire a less qualified candidate over one who has been out of work for more than six months. They assume that a career gap has resulted in the deterioration of skills. nb: study related to unemployment rather than voluntary career breaks, but parallels can be made.
The loss of women in mid-senior levels has a significant impact on business:
  • Your loss, Ioannidis & Walther 2010: The Attrition Triangle demonstrates how companies are investing in talented women only to lose them before they reach senior management levels. “This gender based brain-drain is causing a shortage of women at board level.” It is likely that career breaks play a role in this exodus.
In turn, this negatively impacts the economy:
  • Increasing female participation in the British labour force could add £170bn to the UK economy and boost GDP by 9% (PwC, 2016)
Most women who take career breaks intend to return to work:
  • Project 2840 (April 2014) found that 3/4 of UK women who leave work to who leave the workforce to care for children or other relatives want to return to work at some point.
However the majority encounter difficulties when trying to return to work:
  • The US Center for Work Life Policy study (2009) reported that 73% of returners had trouble finding a job after their break; only 74% rejoined the workforce, 40% to full time roles.
The difficulties encountered in returning to work at the same level after a break increases the gender pay gap:
  • Looking at women who leave paid work, hourly wages for those who subsequently return are, on average, about 2% lower for each year that they have taken out of employment in the interim. This relationship is stronger, at 4% per year, for women with at least A-level qualifications (Institute of Fiscal Studies Report, 2016)
Unsurprisingly, this has led to a fear of taking a career break, reducing the options open to parents and carers: