Time away from work hits women's confidence harder than men's, research finds

21 May 2021 By Calum Trenaman

Report raises concerns over how women might be disproportionately impacted as lockdown ends and calls on government to provide greater support to those returning to work

More than one in three workers experience a loss in confidence after spending a significant amount of time away from work, a study has found, with women almost twice as likely to be affected as men.

A poll of more than 1,000 people who had returned to work after an absence of a year, conducted by Survation for Vodafone UK, found 37 per cent of those who return to work after a year or more away experience a loss of confidence in their own ability.

This loss of confidence was nearly twice as prevalent in women (42 per cent) than in men (24 per cent).

The research also showed women returning to work were more likely to face barriers than men.

Nearly half (45 per cent) of women cited caring responsibilities as a challenge when returning to work, compared to 30 per cent of men; and 46 per cent of women cited childcare costs as a hurdle, compared to just 23 per cent of men.

Similarly, just under a third (31 per cent) of women returners said they found it hard to reacclimatise to working life after a long break, compared to a quarter of men (25 per cent).

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The report has raised concerns over how women might be disproportionately impacted as lockdown restrictions end and businesses prepare for the work from home advice to be lifted – potentially from 21 June.

Laura Farris MP, co-chair of the Women and Work All-Party Parliamentary Group, said that given the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak and the number of people who have been out of the office environment or on furlough for the last year, it is “even more pressing” for organisations to do more for returning workers.

“It’s clear that supporting people who have taken a career break, particularly women, back into work can deliver significant economic benefits as well as improve an organisation’s retention rate and diversity,” she said.

This was echoed by Joe Levenson, director of communications and campaigns at the Young Women’s Trust, who said it was “little surprise” women’s confidence was impacted more than men when taking time away from work.

“With women continuing to take on the majority of childcare and other unpaid caring responsibilities and too many employers continuing to resist a flexible approach, it’s little surprise that women report being less confident than men about returning to work after time away,” he said.

Levenson added that employers who do not address this disparity in confidence were not only letting women down, but would also fail to “make the most of talented and hardworking employees.”

The report highlighted the need to support returners, and especially female returners who – according to a PWC figure cited in the report – have the potential to contribute £1bn to the UK economy.

It argued employers and the government need to provide greater support to encourage people, who may have taken a career break, back into the workforce, and is calling for part of the £2.5bn National Skills Fund to be allocated to help returners develop the appropriate skills.

Julianne Miles MBE, CEO of Women Returners, said that women who had taken career breaks due to the pandemic would “swell the ranks of talented returners who face major hurdles when they want to resume their careers”.

“Bringing this talent back into suitable employment will require a united effort from employers, government and support organisations,” Miles added. “So we welcome this report and particularly the recommendations for employers to be more open-minded in recruitment and the UK government to ring fence funding for returners.”

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