Developing a strong pipeline of female leaders is a serious concern for the marketing industry as it strives to become more diverse both in age and gender.

Aside from the widening gender pay gap, one of the biggest issues facing female marketers is the penalty being imposed on their careers for taking a break to raise their children.

Whether they choose to step away from work for three, five or even 10 years, women contemplating a return to the workplace face a number of barriers, ranging from recruitment biases regarding the gap on their CV to a lack of flexible or part-time roles on offer.

There is, however, concrete evidence that engaging this untapped pool of senior talent could reap serious financial benefits, not only for businesses but the wider economy.

Addressing the career gap penalty for female professionals would create an annual earnings boost of £1.1bn, or £4,000 per woman, according to research jointly conducted by PwC, the 30% Club, which is focused on getting more women onto FTSE 100 boards, and professional network Women Returners. This would result in £1.7bn worth of additional economic output in increased earnings and spending power.

This pipeline is significant. The research suggests 427,000 female professionals currently on a career break will likely return to work in the future. Furthermore, 76% of professional women want to return to work.

Gaps are irrelevant and depending on why someone took them it can add life experience and huge credibility to who they are as an individual.

Kirsten Walkom, Save the Children

There are, however, many issues facing returners once they are back in the workplace. Following a career break women are at real risk of “occupational downgrading”. According to PwC, three in five women are likely to end up in lower skilled roles compared to the job they held before their career break, with 65% of female returners working below their potential.

Underemployment is another challenge to contend with. Some 29,000 women who have returned to work on a part-time basis would rather work more hours if flexible working was available.

Bridging the gap

To tackle the specific challenges faced by the marketing industry Amanda Fone, founder and CEO of recruitment firm F1 teamed up with Liz Nottingham, HR director at advertising agency R/GA, to establish the Back2Businesship programme.

Launched in 2014, the programme aims to bridge the gap between employers and marketers looking to return to work after a career break and to date has helped 80 candidates rejoin the workplace in permanent or flexible roles.

The programme includes two weeks of mentoring, skills assessment and upskilling, followed by a three-month paid ‘returnship’ with companies including long-term partner Golin PR, Hewlett Packard (HP), Save the Children and Chelsea FC.

Pitched as a consultancy contract, the returnship enables senior marketers to fill the gap on their CV with relevant, practical experience that counts when they are looking for a permanent role.

“The number one goal is to get these women back into the workplace contributing to the bottom line and opening organisations’ eyes to the fact there is an untapped talent stream that is just sitting there if only they could be a bit more imaginative,” says Fone.

“I call it the blind spot. If you know you lose X percentage of your staff every year, you could be using this untapped talent in your organisation.”

Breaking down the barriers

Despite having 12 years’ marketing and communications experience, Jan Sanghera experienced difficulty re-entering the workplace after taking four years out to raise her two children, one year of which was spent studying for a digital marketing diploma from the Institute of Direct and Digital Marketing (IDM).

“I was applying but I wouldn’t hear back. The more I applied, the more I kept thinking the gap on my CV was the issue,” Sanghera recalls.

“I’d had senior marketing and comms experience, and now I had this up-to-date skillset in digital and I thought I would at least get to the interview stage, so it was slightly disheartening that I wasn’t hearing back.”

Taking part in the two-week Back2Businesship programme taught Sanghera to see her career break as something positive, while the networking element of the course introduced her to Neta Tully, vice-president of communications at HP EMEA.

The 2016 Back2Businesship cohort

In April, Sanghera was brought on board at HP for a three-month paid placement working as a contractor on strategic projects, running HP’s Sustainability Summit from planning to implementation.

“When I first started at the company I thought I would be stereotyped by having had this career break, but actually I didn’t have anything to worry about,” says Sanghera.

“Everyone has a very modern approach to working. People need a work-life balance and I see people working at HP in a really flexible way. That’s the way forward.”

Despite starting out as a pilot placement for three months, HP has already extended Sanghera’s contract to six months.

“Jan just got into the middle of it and I have to say I couldn’t have found a more motivated, capable or enthusiastic candidate,” says HP’s Neta Tully.

Tully argues that for a returnship to work it needs to form part of a wider commitment to diversity, rather than simply a “CSR tick box” exercise. She cites the decision taken by HP chief marketing and communications officer Antonio Lucio…