For many women, a return to work can feel like a daunting prospect and the challenge is magnified in traditionally male-dominated industries, such as financial services.

While the investment world has made some in-roads to embrace returning women, there is a long way to go if we are to harness a vastly underutilised seam of talent. 

Of the 427,000 women either returning or contemplating a return to the workplace, many feel out-of-touch, low in confidence and unsure how to rediscover their career path.

This is not a vague set of complaints; these are the symptoms of a problem that has diminished the nation's talent pool for decades.

PWC believes addressing the inequality that career breaks create for women could deliver gains of £1.7 bn to the UK economy - due to the multiplier effect from higher-earnings gains. 

Here, I address the three key challenges facing women returners and discuss how addressing these hurdles can smooth the re-entry of women into the workplace. 

Confidence gap

I know, as a returning mother, my self-esteem after having three children was not as high as it was before I went on maternity leave. Somehow five joyful years of changing nappies and screaming babies created a detachment from the working world!

My confidence was low, but I was very keen to return. However, there didn't seem to be a clear route back. This uncertainty around returning adds to an apparent institutionalised lack of confidence experienced by women.

A study from Cornell University found men overestimate their abilities and performance, while women underestimate both. Yet the same study demonstrated actual performance between genders does not differ in quality or quantity. 

This female confidence challenge was also described as the 'imposter syndrome' by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. Women frequently express the view they don't feel they deserve their job and are 'imposters' who could be found out at any moment. 

The study also found women worry more about 'being disliked, appearing unattractive, outshining others, or grabbing too much attention'.

Companies can do a lot more by mentoring our young women before they go on maternity leave, and mentoring our returners to help them use their skills and talents as best as possible. 

There are many forms of returner programmes, including return to practice and retraining programmes. Guidance should focus on returner programmes involving paid work, on a temporary or permanent basis, and providing a supported route back to permanent employment.

Hiring gap

We know from head-hunters that women do not respond in the same way as men do to their calls.

Around 95% of men respond within 48 hours but only 50% of women will respond at all. This may be down to loyalty to their current organisation or confidence levels.

This could be an easy battle for the financial sector to win. We could begin by widening our hiring process, encouraging existing female staff and offering flexibility.   

Employers also need to find ways to scale up returner programmes and normalise the hiring of returners, as part of the recruitment process.

Within this best practice is key; the Government Equalities Office aims to increase the number and scope of returner programmes, and ensure that employers are offering good quality, merit-based opportunities to returners at all levels. This should be the template of all firms.

Pay gap

Despite a lot of persuasive corporate virtue signalling, financial services remain the biggest culprit in terms of pay disparity. According to the ONS's latest Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (Ashe), the average woman working in finance earns 35.6% less than the average man.

This is not a glass ceiling, but one made of reinforced concrete. With the vision and talent in our industry, we should not be on top of the leader board for an appallingly high gender pay gap.

Fortunately, pioneering companies are seeking to redress the balance. I have been greatly inspired by Redington, which has reduced its gender pay gap from 21% to 0.2%.

It attributed the improvement to looking at a larger hiring pool including non-financial degrees, a return to work programme with a head-hunter, The Return Hub, and removing unconscious bias in bonuses and pay rises. 

Pay disparity sends the wrong signals to women and dents confidence among women looking to return to the workplace. It infers they are a lower-value resource than their male counterparts and conditions women to thinking they should expect less.

At Trium, we are developing a set of guiding principles underpinned by elements of the UN Sustainable Development Goals - and female equality is a huge part of this.

Core to this is removing cognitive bias within the human resources function, encouraging returners and forging a level playing field. 

There are 1.9 million women who are economically inactive for caring reasons, many whom have professional or managerial experience.

Around three quarters of women surveyed by Opportunity Now would like to return to work at some point.

However significant barriers, both personal and structural, stand in their way. The investment industry can help to unlock this potential and empower women across the country.