11/09/2015 08:51 BST | Updated 10/09/2016 06:12 BST

Mind the (Career) Gap: Why Businesses Must Help Mums Get Back to Work

With the new school year now upon us, thousands of mothers will be looking to return to the workplace, either reigniting their old careers or embarking on a new one. But sadly many will be quickly disappointed, because the business world is not yet switched on to how or why they should recruit from this group of experienced, committed and talented women. The opportunity is incredibly limited.

Politicians and business leaders talk a lot about boardroom quotas, pay equality and diversity. But the issue of helping women return to work is not yet on our agenda and it needs to be. We need more women returning to the workplace to increase the pool at the top, achieve true gender equality and inspire younger generations.

"Flexible working" is the key. It's THE corporate buzzword of the moment and yet the number of part-time or flexi-hour job vacancies is almost zero. We talk a good game but we're all stuck in a pre-historic misconception that someone working a four-day or compressed week won't be as valuable as someone full time. This ignores the fact that women returners are generally highly productive, focused and committed - when you know you have to be out the door at 5pm or someone will be in tears at the school gate, you are very motivated to get the job done. There is no time to waste chatting at the water cooler.

Employers are also scared of hiring someone who has been out of the workplace for three years; they can't see (or can't be bothered to see) past the 'gap' on the CV. The women returners meanwhile often lack confidence and don't know how to translate their parenting experience into valuable business skills.

We recently carried out some research with YouGov to test this theory, and the results were truly alarming. It showed that a large number of women across all industries feel their business is behind the times when it comes to accommodating returning mothers.

Most shockingly, over half of British women who were planning to have children said they think motherhood will make them change their career plans. A statistic that made me feel particularly sad was the 18% of women who said they have hidden their family plans from their employers, worried their manager would not react positively to them taking parental leave. How isolating and lonely to work with people every day and not be able to talk openly about a momentous stage in your life.

It doesn't get any better when they return to work either. 26% of respondents feel self-conscious about needing to work flexible hours due to childcare. Unless senior management teams support these initiatives, returnees will continue to experience 'baby shaming' - the idea that their colleagues are somehow judging them.

Balancing a young child and a career is remarkably challenging and businesses need to step up to meet the needs of parents. They need to proactively offer flexible working arrangements, create more part-time or flexible roles, offer mentoring and training and create a work environment that helps returning parents feel valued and at ease. Of course this should go for mothers and fathers. The issue of women returners is more prevalent for historical and cultural reasons but with the introduction of shared parental leave, we will see more fathers taking leave and then facing the same challenges to return to work.

There is also an urgent need to help ease the transition through skills-based training and placements. If going on holiday can leave you feeling out of the loop, imagine the experience of those who've taken four or five years out to raise their children. Returnship programmes, such as the back2businessship initiative in the media and marketing sector, are designed to give parents the practical skills, knowledge and confidence required to pitch themselves for a new career.

All businesses, big or small, need to think about what support they offer for parent returners in their sector and whether there's any further opportunities to make a difference and make 'baby shaming' a thing of the past.