Fighting for many happy returns

The barriers preventing women re-entering the workforce are stronger than ever. While progress has been made in recent years to address these issues, there is still more work to be done.

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These barriers mean less work, less pay and it leaves women poorer in retirement.

“You’ve got 15 years of experience but instead they focus on, ‘well, you didn't work for three years’ … The focus should be on the 15 years, not on the three-year career break.” – Tracy Merlino

But one woman turned it around for herself and is now helping others.

Tracy Merlino has heard all the horror stories:

A three-year career break negates all the work you did in your 15-year career….

Don’t even bother applying for jobs unless you are going full time….

Your experience as a mum raising children does not belong on your CV….

But it doesn’t mean Tracy has put up with it.

I'm sort of living proof that you can have a career break, you can return, and you can have a career after that,” she says.

Aiding the return to work

ANZ Return to Work program – applications now open

ANZ's Return to Work Program is back for the third year in a row, supporting people who are ready to re-enter the workforce after a career break.

There are 70 role vacancies now open in Technology, Commercial and Institutional banking teams, in Australia, India, the Philippines and New Zealand.

  • Since 2019 more than 65 people have found roles within ANZ through the program.
  • The retention of candidates is above 80 per cent
  • All 70 role vacancies are outlined on the ANZ's Return to Work Program page

She battled for a fruitless year in her bid to return to the workforce after taking time out to care for her two children.

I was at home with both the kids and I was looking forward to getting back into the workforce. Getting the balance right and looking for something part time so I could have that work-life balance,she says.

The biggest challenge I found was looking for part-time work. I would look through all the normal avenues such as Seek and LinkedIn, looking for roles, and they were all advertised as full time. Pretty much all of them. In 12 months of searching, I only came across two part-time roles.”

That wasn't going to work for Tracy.

She eventually found the ideal role in 2019 within ANZ as part of the bank’s ‘Return to Work’ program. The job as a test analyst allowed her to juggle family commitments.

Within two years she’d been promoted three times into a management role, working with business product owners to make sure software updates ran smoothly. Now she is using her experience to help other women return to the workforce.

“I had (an employee) who was working three days a week, part time for me as a test analyst. And I found she actually added more value in the three days than I had from somebody who was working five days,” she says. “The difference was she was the right person for the role compared to the other person who just wasn't well-suited to that particular role.’’

Such examples of breaking down the barriers are still the outlier if you look at the raw data.

According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, women returning to work in Australia face a gender pay gap. In 2021, the national gender pay gap in Australia was 13.4 per cent. That equates to women earning about $253.60 less per week than male colleagues.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics women returning to work in Australia also face an employment gap. In 2021, the workforce participation rate for women was 61.8 per cent, compared with 71.1 per cent for men.

Research by the University of South Australia points to the bias underpinning the stats. It found mothers in Australia are often perceived as less competent and less committed to their work than women without children.

Ironically, work by McKinsey & Company found it more profitable for businesses to get women back into the workforce on their own terms after a career break. The global consultancy found gender diverse companies are 25 per cent more likely to outperform peers financially and inclusive companies are 60 per cent more likely to outperform peers in decision making.

Put simply, more diverse teams make better decisions for our customers and communities. So, if it makes economic sense to be more gender diverse – and help not hinder women getting back to work – what is blocking progress?

As Nobel Prize winning economist Richard Thaler points out, what we think are fact-based rational choices are often decisions based on natural human cognitive limitations and biases.

Unfortunately for women, these biases can hamper their role prospects. Tracy says she knows women who were told the time they took to look after family counted against them.

If you had a three-year career break or a five-year break, it almost negates the experience you do come with. You’ve got 15 years of experience but instead they focus on, ‘well, you didn't work for three years’ … The focus should be on the 15 years, not on the three-year career break.”

So how do we overcome this? We start by re-examining the processes which led to this point, starting with hiring. Including simplifying job advertisements. Research shows if we reduce a job advertisement to the “must haves” we will get more diverse applicants.

The reason? Apparently, men typically apply for a job when they meet 60 per cent of the requirements, whereas women only apply when they meet 100 per cent.

Other steps include leaving out phrases like ‘aggressive’ and ‘seasoned professional’ and instead using ‘flexible work options’, ‘progressive culture’ and ‘adaptable skillset.’

And instead of posting a role as part time or full time, wait to assess the applicants and what their needs are first. It may be a good opportunity to create a job share role. A great part-time candidate may be put off if the role is advertised as full time.

Tracy says another way to help is to focus on the skills a candidate brings.

“They may have other skills they've developed during that career break, doing different jobs or caring for children, that they can then utilise in the role they're working in,” she says. “Another thing to consider is when people are returning from a break, they come back more energised, they're more enthusiastic, they want to work.

Tracy says she appreciated the opportunity she was given and was keen to come back and add value: “It is like having someone come back from holidays … or having a graduate with that graduate energy - but having years of experience that they can bring to the table as well.”

ANZ’s Return to Work program will open for applications for its third global cohort on March 8th 2023.

Carina Parisella is Innovation and Diversity Editor at bluenotes 


The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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