Melissa Schofield hadn’t accepted a job offer for 18 years.
When she started thinking about returning to work, she knew that nearly two decades away could seem like a long time for employers.
But during her break from the workforce, Schofield earned a master’s degree, took on ad-hoc consulting gigs and managed a household of seven—so she was sure of what she brought to the table.
However, she also knew that while she was ready to get back to work, she needed a job that would accommodate responsibilities like picking up and dropping off her kids at daycare, so a remote or hybrid set-up would be important.
Two months ago, Schofield started working as an account executive at reinsurance broker Gallagher RE. She works from home three days a week, and commuted into the company’s London office for the other two days. For her, the option to work part of her job remotely nudged her to return to the world of work.
Career returners each have their own unique reasons for stepping back from work and eventually returning. These reasons range from caring for children or others relatives, higher education, health, travel or for simply to catch a break and reset one’s batteries, Women Returners found.
And for many like Schofield, flexible work arrangements offer a great path for women as they reintegrate into the workforce.
“I think if I hadn’t got that flexible working, I wouldn’t have come back,” Schofield told Fortune. “It’s given me a lot of confidence, really, that I can work because I can juggle it, and I think it just makes my whole work-life balance so much better.”
Hybrid work enables a return to work
Organizations like U.K.-based Women Returners train women who have gaps on their resumes and help them connect with a network of other women who’ve had similar experiences.
Julianne Miles runs Women Returners, which has been around for almost 10 years and counts 9,000 women in its professional network today. In Miles’s view, the proliferation of remote work as a viable option has been a game-changer for women on career breaks.
“Remote and hybrid working models that developed during and after the pandemic have been a great enabler for many women to get back to work—particularly those who have continuing child care and elder care commitments,” Miles told Fortune.
Career breaks are becoming more common. Last year, LinkedIn recognized it as a category of its own for users’ profiles, helping to normalize the concept irrespective of the reason that may be driving it. For their part, employers are rising to the occasion by offering career re-entry programs—40% of Fortune 500 companies offer some version of such schemes, according to the Harvard Business Review.
Women are inherently central to the discussion because they are more likely to take career breaks than men, often for care-giving reasons. This can go on to have implications on how they’re perceived in the workplace as well as their career progression when they return. Auditing firm PwC found that the “motherhood penalty,” wherein women’s lifetime earnings are dented due to their child care responsibilities, was the main reason for deepening gender pay gaps across OECD countries.
Ensuring women have smooth transitions back into the workforce after career breaks could help unlock billions of dollars’ worth of untapped potential—and hybrid work could be key to achieving it, according to Miles. The normalization of the use of tech tools for virtual meetings and workplace collaboration have also helped make the transition seamless, the BBC reported in September.
“Hybrid work has definitely made it a lot easier for many women to think about how they logistically get back to work,” Miles told Fortune, adding that some returners have also been able to widen their job search areas, opening up more opportunities for them in their job hunt.
Hybrid work can help with perception
One of the challenges women face when returning to work is winning confidence from others in their ability to take on a new role, as career gaps can sometimes be misconstrued as a sign that someone lacks ambition. That’s where the option of remote work can be critical, says Molly Johnson-Jones, CEO of Flexa—a platform that aims to offer transparency to job-seekers on companies offering workplace flexibility. About 76% of Flexa’s users are women, some of whom are career returners.
“Naturally you’re going to feel like you’re on your backfoot because you haven’t been in the workforce for the past few years, perception will be everything and you don’t want to be perceived as less committed or working less hard just because you’ve taken that career break,” Johnson-Jones said.
“[Offering] remote work automatically means that a company is likely to accept that flexibility, and be more culturally set up to be able to support it.”
Career gaps can be a result of choice or circumstance, but what women did in their time away can be indicative of the employee they can be when they return. Lucy Kallin, EMEA executive director at Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that aims to help build workplaces that work for women, says smart companies use flexible work as an attraction and retention tool for employees. If anything, she argues, women returning from career breaks—especially if taken for child care reasons—will have gained skills that are valuable in a professional setting.
“The experience that they’re bringing, you can’t just buy it at a cheaper rate because you’re doing them a favor by bringing them back,” Kallin told Fortune in an interview, adding that returners can show stronger soft skills like communication and empathy. “You’re not doing them [women returners] a favor.”
Schofield is a case in point—the many things she did during her career break included homeschooling two of her four children, as well as taking on projects in her local area that needed her to exercise her consulting muscles.
“I think my career gap shows how driven I am,” Schofield said.
But opting for remote work in companies that have a largely in-person operations can sometimes raise concerns about proximity bias, where leaders treat employees who are physically present around them more favorably. This can trickle down to the promotions and pay raises people receive if they opt for a more flexible arrangement, even if they are more productive.
“Leaders tend to think that in-office workers are better performers, they tend to see them as more likely to be promoted. So, there’s a risk that if women are taking advantage of remote work more often because they’re expected to be responsible for so many different things outside of work, they may end up suffering in terms of their career progression,” Caitlin Duffy, research director at Gartner HR, told Fortune.
However, as more companies are beginning to work with employees on creating hybrid work arrangements, they will actively try to focus on the output of employees rather than their office presence as a marker for their performance, Kallin and Johnson-Jones said.
The fact still remains that women continue to bear the responsibility of the primary caregiver, which means that calls to return to the office can disproportionately impact their career progression. However, when remote work is an option—for both men and women—experts say there is a greater sense of shared responsibility between parents or caregivers. Flexa’s Johnson-Jones believes that if hybrid or flexible work is uniformly offered as an option without arduous request processes, men and women be more likely to split their household responsibilities equally.
“Flexible work is good for both men and women because it helps us move towards gender equality,” she said.