Deciding to return to work after any career break, whether it be to start a family, care for an elderly or sick relative or travel the world, is one that can be daunting, overwhelming but most of all challenging.

Within the STEM industries (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths), the barriers faced by female engineers when returning to work have never been more evident. Women make up just 14.7% of all engineers, equating to just 906,785 employees. Whilst this figure represents a 25.7% increase since 2016, women are still very much a minority within the sector. Despite a continued effort to encourage young girls to study STEM subjects at school, only a small percentage actually pursue a career in engineering.

As the limited number of female engineers progress through their careers, many decide to take a career break after approximately 8 years of postgraduate employment. This is where the problem really unravels, with around 45% of women engineers dropping out of the sector entirely after this career break. This is a shocking percentage that demonstrates almost half of the already tiny percentage of women in STEM industries dropping out entirely, equating to a loss of hundreds of thousands of women engineers from the industry.

What prevents women returning to the engineering sector after a career break?

A common misconception among recruiters and hiring managers alike is that a career break means a deterioration of the individual’s skills, putting returners at a disadvantage during the recruitment process. Research conducted by STEM Returners, a company created in response to the ever-growing skills gap, found that career breaks and CV gaps were associated with unconscious bias at the shortlist stage. With time constraints and a pressure to hire quickly and successfully, decisions often come down to those who had the most recent and relevant experience. This makes securing jobs extremely difficult for those returning to the industry, harming their confidence and desire to return to the sector and explains why many pursue alternative career paths.

A further barrier to women returning to STEM careers is the lack of flexibility offered by companies in the sector. Rigid policies and inflexible working hours deter many women from considering a return to the industry, especially those who have taken time out to start a family. Job shares, flexible hours and hybrid working opportunities are hard to come by in the engineering sector, leading to an increase in dropouts as women are forced to find other work that fits around their personal life. There is also a lack of support available for those who are adjusting back to working life after a prolonged absence.

With an ever-growing skills gap and an overall lack of progress in diversity within engineering, it is essential that the challenges preventing women returning to this sector are addressed. Action must be taken to ensure that the valuable skills and experience of women engineers is not lost.

What can we do?

As an employer:

  • Offer work flexibility – since the COVID-19 pandemic, the world of work has changed drastically as we have realised that hybrid or home working is feasible for most roles and industries. Providing women engineers with some flexibility can ensure that they can have a career without compromising on family life – it doesn’t have to be a choice between the two!
  • Keep in touch – if your employees do take a career break, ensure them that the door is always open for people coming back to work. Make sure that you check in with them and maintain your relationship.
  • Make diversity a priority – tailor your recruitment strategy to encourage applicants of all backgrounds to apply.

As hiring managers:

  • Advertise all roles fairly – ensure that the language used in your job ads engages with returners and encourages their applications.
  • Actively search for potential ‘returners’ – reach out to those who are taking a career break about new roles and let them know their skills in the industry are valued.
  • Give returners a chance – don’t rule out candidates with gaps in their CV at the shortlist stage. Give them the opportunity to prove that their skills are just as strong after taking time out. The selection process should not automatically discount those who have taken breaks.

As women in engineering:

  • Support each other! – celebrate each other’s successes and share them across your socials to amplify female voices.
  • Advocate for change – speak to your employers about lack of gender diversity within STEM and begin conversations about open hiring policies. Share research and statistics on the topic with your network to bring attention to the issues faced by women engineers. Bring about change by speaking up and highlighting outdated and inflexible policies that are worsening the skills gap.
  • Be bold – don’t be afraid to ask your employers for flexibility in your role. Challenge industry norms.
  • Stay up to date – if you’re a woman in STEM who is taking a career break, it is now easier than ever to stay in the loop. Social media is a great way of keeping up to date with your industry. It’s also a great way to engage with companies you may want to work for in the future.

If you would like to discuss how to implement a recruitment strategy that embraces diversity, or if you would like our director Samantha to speak about this topic in your company, school or university, please get in touch with the team at


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