Employment and Diversity: Female Professionals on the Move – An Untapped Pool of Skilled Workers in the European Union

A number of exposes in recent years have pointed out that professional women, who have had a period of absence from the labour force[1] and want to return, is an untapped pool of skillful workers. However, studies show that those who wish to re-join, face a number of structural challenges, including high unemployment and underemployment rates, as well as more subtle forms of gender and/or age related bias, i.e., perceived lack of commitment, not having an up-to-date technical skills, etc.  As highlighted by Rosati in her piece The Diversity Triangle – Why Women, Businesses and Headhunters Need to Work Better Together”[2]: “As a general rule, rightly or wrongly, men are still viewed as being able to make a full and strong commitment to work, whereas women are often viewed as facing competing priorities, particularly at a senior level.

In an article to HR Magazine by Natalie Bickford, European HR Director at Sodexo[3], she stressed that mid-career level women are finding a struggle to access job opportunities, while there is a need for businesses to move in the direction of enabling this group of professionals to re-enter the labour market. While concurring with Bickford, in my opinion this message also goes for employers in the public sector as they are one of the main sectors employing a large number of female professional workers; i.e., social services, health, education as well as public policy and programmes. The appropriate incorporation of experienced mid-level career professionals is an important feature when trying to increase the participation of women in the work force in Europe[4], as we face demographic changes; i.e., ageing population, combined with the need to step-up productivity.

However, what can be done to mitigate this challenge and create a win-win solution?  To my knowledge, most experiences in support of women re-entering the labour market have been those programs which focus primarily on returnee professional mothers.  In my opinion, the group of highly skilled intra-EU mobile/migrant women  is  still overlooked by those in search of professional workers; i.e., employers or by those in support services for jobseekers; i.e., public employment offices. Based on evidence from studies on highly skilled migrant women and on-going research[5], female highly skilled intra-EU mobile and migrant jobseekers’, may share a similar feature to those of mothers wishing to return to the labour market, that is, a non-linear career trajectories, ‘loss’ touch with relevant professional networks, and a “career-break” triggered by mobility/migration. Moreover, through the process of mobility/migration, female highly- skilled workers, may also experience a number of additional hurdles or disadvantages; i.e., lack of support with childcare responsibilities, employment services which do not understand their experience and diverse talents, which makes their re-entry experience even more challenging compared to their non-mobile peers.

Bickford is insightful in her analysis that business is not pulling their weight on supporting and promoting mid-career level women who want to return to the labour market.  I can add that neither are public institutions offering specific programs for mid-career level mobile jobseekers. As echoed in this webpage, there is an absence of appropriate programs for mid-career level jobseekers on the mobile path, in particular intra-EU mobiles. Mid-career returnees on the mobile path can certainly benefit from dedicated programs aimed at integration into the labour market, instead of the on-going programs for jobseekers which do not take into consideration the specificities of this group; i.e., age, background, years of work experience and hurdles related to mobility. For example, take the experience of special programs for returning mothers which offers a kind of re-entry program aimed at labour market integration.

So why are such programs  not offered to mobile/migrant mid-level career women? Business could certainly profit from both the international skills and years of professional experience that those women can bring to the table. In fact, in Europe, for intra-EU mobile workers, there are no hurdles for employers  related to work permits or cumbersome accreditation of qualifications from abroad. For those interested in promoting diversity and inclusion, this is a group that owns a multiple edge – age, European/international background and gender, combined with professional experience.

The first step in a fruitful business proposal is to recognise an unmet opportunity. However, he next step is even more critical. How will it work? As such, it is vital to work towards establishing and implementing appropriate programs and matching mechanisms which can serve both the business rationale for suitable and experienced workers, as well as identify potential candidates that can be recruited and engaged in a timely manner. This successful,  avoids the impasse of “too young to retire; too old to rehire”[6].

Retirement age everywhere in Europe is increasing given extended life expectancy. This is resulting in an increase in human capital pressures and costs to the public health system.  One might ask: What is the percentage of work performed by the public employment services on case management aimed at matching employers and potential highly skilled candidates?

I understand that such services are very difficult and time consuming to perform. However,  based on evidence at hand, when this takes place, the chances to increase the number of employed individuals is higher[7] compared to other services, such as skills upgrading without a connection to an specific job, CV writing, or preparation for an interview. There is a need to balance the disproportional emphasis on the “skills debate”, which many times is based on employers’ surveys on what they want versus what are the jobs being offered.

I submit an alternative option – focus on improving job-matching services and increase dialogue with business towards multiplying the potential for an appropriate matching. After all, as we have seen in the migration debate, “labour shortage” and demand for specific workers may not always be a problem of “availability of workers”. It may well be related to structural issues[8], such as: recruitment costs, inability to identify the right candidate, low wages and work contracts which may not attract the right candidate[9], etc.

Based on anecdotal accounts commencing with my research in 2011, it strongly suggests that mid-career mobile jobseekers are finding it extremely challenging to re-enter the labour market.  There are a number of reasons for this, including: lack of appropriate language skills, period of absence from the labour market (sometimes due to mobility) and the struggle to find opportunities of employment in accordance to their professional experience and in their location/economic sector.  In fact, it  is  astonishing to see on several online employment databases how many positions there are for internships in professional fields as  social science, communications, just to name a few compared to mid-level jobs in project management.

We are certainly living in times of transition, in which the certainties, experienced by the graduate “baby-boomers”, no longer holds true. According to some analysts, the economic crisis has only exacerbated the speed in which things are changing. It has shed light on the challenges we are now facing in the labour market and the economy with its increasing level of inequality felt so strongly by the middle class.

However, not all is “doom & gloom”. We are also living in extraordinary times in which acquisition of knowledge can be at our disposal as a vehicle for positive changes – provided there is a will and the resources to implement them. With years of trans-national collaboration, through the support of the European Commission, funding mechanisms and programs in the area of research, integration and employment,  have  been learned and exchanged in terms of good practices. In addition, from a gender perspective, Wittenberg-Cox in a recent article for Harvard Business Review “What Work Looks Like for Women in Their 50’s” stated: “Some companies are recognizing that a more gender-balanced talent pool requires a rethink of career phases, and are extending the age of talent identification from the 20s through the 40s … [while] becoming flexible enough to enable their (relatively) late blooming, tapping into a potent new force in global business. For these smart, innovative employers, the silver decades may yield gold.”

Thus, there is a need to intensify the implementation of appropriate practices that can mitigate the persistent challenges of integration into the labour market of diverse groups in a sustainable way, such as the scaling –up and intensification of one-on-one services for jobseekers, as well as special programs that can facilitate entry, retention, and advancement into the labour market of mid-career professionals.

My topic of ‘female highly skilled mobility’ is still under-research. It is exciting to explore the evidence-based studies of barriers faced by non-mobile professional women in the labour market and on support programs for immigrants.  They have afforded me examples of true inspiration and  good practices, which I believe could be adapted to  support  intra-EU mobile professionals.

For example, in 2011 while researching for a project proposal on integration of women into the labour market, I came across the example of a “Returnship Program” for career breakers[10]. Merging the examples from this proposal while adding  my own experience on migration and integration, I  developed a project facilitating the creation of  a programme that could function as a vehicle in support of mobile highly skilled jobseekers as well as  potential employers, serving both diversity and labour market integration.  Unfortunately, in 2011 that idea was ahead of its time. The pragmatic ideas were dismissed   mostly due to the lack of evidence showing the exact numbers (data) and specific challenges this group experienced as they sought employment in other countries in the EU.

As a result of this experience, I shifted the focus of my research to the subject of intra-EU mobility of highly skilled women’s integration into the labour market. This webpage grew out of this passion with the intention of raising awareness of the significant challenges which effect a great deal of professional women on the mobile path.

The fact is that matching supply and demand is an essential element which makes it possible for all of us to contribute in a meaningful way to society. We live in times of competing priorities and agendas facing a standstill, or worse, a deterioration of women’s advancement in the workplace. So that crises’ do not overwhelm or displace the important issues, it is paramount to keep our attention on our intentions for gender equality and employment opportunities.

The workforce pipeline combined with outward barriers for women who aspire to senior management positions, may not be consider by some as a “crisis” worth tackling. However, evidence in the results of the 2015 CEO Success Study by PwC show: “Only 10 women were among the 359 incoming CEOs at the world’s 2500 largest companies in 2015 at 2.8%, that was the lowest share since 2011.[11] (!). These findings lead to the article, “2015: Not the Year of Women CEO”, which underlines:  “Despite this year’s reversal, we [the authors] remain confident that demographic, educational, and societal forces will continue to promote greater diversity in the C-suite.”[12] I wish I could share the same optimism. Unfortunately, based on the World Economic Forum 2015-Global Gender Gap Report, the progress on gender equality is rather slow and more efforts are needed.

Finally, on gender equality and diversity, one often hears that there is “a lack of women in high positions to choose from”. This leads me to believe  that unless society is able to address the workforce pipeline, one may never “have enough” talent to choose from no matter how much society has changed or women have surpassed men in numerical terms as university graduates. Well argued by Roseti: (2014) Recruiters and search firms have a responsibility to produce balanced shortlists and find suitably qualified female candidates. Recruiters have to be willing to challenge their client’s brief or the required skills, but ultimately clients are the final decision makers and they are the ones who have to make the changes […], there are many talented women out there and recruiters need to be prepared to look beyond the obvious to find the exceptional.

I end this piece offering a challenge to potential employers, HR personnel and service providers supporting jobseekers. The next time you are about to engage in a recruitment process, among your potential candidates, consider a female, highly-skilled, mobile/migrant worker.

I look forward to engaging in a dialogue with potential supporters wishing to collaborate in the Integration Project mentioned above. I would also welcome constructive dialogue and exchange of ideas on this topic with the aim of creating practical, pragmatic outcomes. Together we can co-create the change we wish to see on gender equality, diversity and greater employment opportunities in the European Union.

A heartfelt thank you!



[1] Reference in particular to professional women who have “left” the labour market to care for family members.

[2] Carol Rosati, Posted: 11/02/2014 10:32 GMT Updated: 12/04/2014 10:59 BST

[3] “Natalie Bickford: Women are Struggling to re-enter the world of work”, HR Magazineonline, Sep.2015, http://www.hrmagazine.co.uk/article-details/natalie-bickford-women-are-struggling-to-re-enter-the-world-of-work

[4]European Commission, “Growth potential of EU human resources and policy implications for future economic growth”, 2013.

[5] Riano, Kofman, Zulaef, Ackers, Liversage and others (see reference), as well as my on-going research on intra-EU mobility of professional women.

[6] Polyak, I “ Quite a dilemma: Too young to retire, too old to rehire”, 2015 http://www.cnbc.com/2015/01/10/quite-a-dilemma-too-young-to-retire-too-old-to-rehire.html

[7] Ichino, A., G. Schwerdt, R. Winter-Ebmer, and J. Zweimuller, “Too Old to Work, Too Young to Retire?”, IZA DP No. 3110, 2007, Behncke, S., M. Frolich, and M. Lechner, “Public Employment Services and Employers: How important are Networks with Firms?”, IZA DP No. 3005, also Reports on Long-Term Unemployed (See Reference Page)

[8] Cangiano, A. “Migrant Care Workers in Ageing Societies: Research Findings in the UK”, CAMPAS, University of Oxford, 2009.

[9] Gabriel, Yiannis “Job Loss and its Aftermath among Managers and Professionals: Wonded, Fragmented and Flexible”, Work, Employment and Society, 27(1), 2013

[10] Cohen, C. Fisman and V. Steir Rabin, “Back on the Career Track”, 2007

[11] http://www.strategyand.pwc.com/ceosuccess#VisualTabs3

[12] http://www.strategy-business.com/article/2015-Not-the-Year-of-the-Woman-CEO?gko=20b3e