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Empowering Women Returners: Strategies for Re-entering the Financial and Accounting Sector

Written by: Evie Courtier
Published on: 31 May 2024

Re-entering the Financial Sector

Our valued partner; ACCA Accounting and Business magazine, shares with GAAPweb their insights on supporting women returners to the workplace.

GAAPweb champions the careers of women, as evidenced by our status as one of the founding members of the Women in Finance Charter. With an audience of 48% women [Reference; GAAPweb salary survey], GAAPweb stands by women on maternity leave, sabbatical, or a career gap looking to return to the workplace with ease.

Returning to work after a career break can be a daunting prospect for many, especially women who have taken time off to raise a family.

Nonetheless, with a growing awareness of inclusion and valuing varied experiences, a multitude of organisations are starting to rethink what ‘career breaks' mean to those who take them’, and what strategies they can put in place to attract and retain women returners.

“Besides being able to provide unique yet relevant perspectives, we find women returning to the workforce after a sabbatical also have a recharged energy level and a refreshed commitment to succeed,” notes Jasmine Lee, managing partner at EY Hong Kong and Macau.

  • The Challenges

    Returning to the workforce presents a significant challenge, states Lena Wong, a former finance industry professional specialising in asset management, turned managing director of Womentors - an organisation collaborating with companies to support women in their journey back to work.

    Wong acknowledges that during her own career break, she often questioned her future employability. The reality for women returning to professional life involves overcoming multiple hurdles, with employers often doubting the skills and abilities of women who have had a career gap. There’s also a key misconception that returners are not dependent on their income to manage their households, which can sometimes translate into missed opportunities for long-term development; as a result, many women returners end up in lower skilled roles or face salary discrimination.

    As noted in the GAAPweb salary survey, female representation in senior management now stands at 35% (compared to 28% in 2017). A variety of senior roles, from Finance Business Partners to Head of Finance jobs, report healthy gender representation. Yet a mere 29% of those in CFO jobs and 32% of Finance Directors identify as women. By contrast, 64% of those working as Accounts Assistants - a lower-level position - are women.

    ‘When I returned to work after taking a few years’ break to raise my family, not many employers were interested in finding out what type of experiences I had accumulated during my gap years,’ says Maria Blanca FCCA, COO of the Hong Kong arm of green solutions start-up Carbonbase.

  • How to Unlock Potential

    Supporting women returners is not merely a matter of fairness but a strategic imperative. Motherhood has long been perceived negatively for working professionals, with some struggling to manage work-life balance - a phenomenon often referred to as the ‘motherhood penalty.’

    By fostering opportunities and embracing gender diversity, society can unlock the full potential of women in the workforce, leading to positive societal change and economic growth.

  • The Corporate Role

    Companies can play a pivotal role in supporting women returning to work after a career hiatus. Lena Wong emphasises the importance of investing in resources and providing training to bridge any skill gaps.

    For instance, Womentors offers a returnship program to corporates, functioning as an internship or management trainee program to demonstrate that candidates remain capable professionals despite their career break.

    Blanca suggests various ways companies can assist, from creating flexible work roles and schedules and setting up returnship programs to implementing more generous leave policies and reinforcing mandatory parental leave.

    At EY, women receive support through multiple avenues. "We provide ample learning opportunities, practical work experience, and career development guidance for all employees, including women returners, to help them realise their full potential and become future business leaders," says Lee.

    "It is essential to regularly assess and refine initiatives based on feedback and evolving needs to ensure long-term success," she adds. "An ongoing process of evaluation and adaptation will help create an environment that truly supports and empowers women as they reintegrate into the workforce."

  • What Employers Can Do

    There are a plethora of ways for companies to encourage and support women returning from a career hiatus, says Jasmine Lee, managing partner at EY Hong Kong and Macau:

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    Establish support programs with specific incentives and measures.

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    Allow flexible work arrangements such as remote work, part-time schedules, or job-sharing opportunities.

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    Promote a culture of inclusivity that ensures equal opportunities for all employees.

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    Offer upskilling opportunities to help employees update their skills and knowledge.

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    Create support networks that provide networking opportunities and a platform for sharing experiences.

  • Adopt an Open Mind

    Open-mindedness within the existing team is crucial, and larger companies often allocate more resources toward reintegrating women into the same roles they held before their career break.

    Lee notes that EY understands the importance of supporting employees who take breaks, including women returning from maternity leave. The company is committed to accommodating their time and availability by matching their workloads accordingly.

    "Taking maternity breaks as an example, the teams support in managing clients and projects for individuals on leave. When the individual returns from their break, the teams assess the situation and work together to help them retain the accounts they were previously working on," says Lee. This approach extends beyond maternity leave and applies to anyone who may need to take a career break, regardless of the reason.

    "Our aim is to support individuals in rebuilding their workload and ensuring a smooth transition back into their roles, providing the necessary support to both the employees and clients during this period."