Once you start looking, you see lost women everywhere.
They’re not just the stay-at-home mothers who linger at the school gate after drop-off, the ones who obviously have time on their hands. Sometimes they’re the women at the checkout, or in the call centre, or part-time in the office – the ones who, when you get to know them, seem a bit restless, obviously over-qualified for what they’re actually doing. The lost women are the ones who never made it back into their old careers, or anything resembling them, after having kids and for whom the idea of getting back up there looks ever more remote than ever as time goes by. Their confidence has taken a knock, their networks have moved on without them, their families have got used to having them around and, anyway, in some industries even if they did try to make a comeback now they'd be considered positively over the hill. These days, even they barely recognise the person still described on their CV, who once somehow managed three impossible things before breakfast.
And, regardless of whether they're still in mourning for those lost careers or have long ago come to terms with it all, in economic and political terms they represent a missed opportunity. It’s these lost women Theresa May and her new equalities secretary, Amber Rudd, are trying to reach via a £1.5m scheme to ease people who have been out of the workplace for over a year, caring for children or elderly relatives (nine out of 10 of whom are female) back into jobs.
This might just be Theresa May’s chance to leave a mark on women’s everyday lives, a legacy other than Brexit
Rudd, who pulled off her own midlife comeback to get into parliament at the age of 47, perhaps has some idea of what they're up against. While some of her colleagues were spending their thirties chasing seats, she spent hers concentrating on “keeping my head above the water”, after her husband walked out and she found herself a single mother of two small children. Her own ambitions went on the back burner and it wasn’t until a decade later, when the kids were entering their teens, that she fought her first unsuccessful by-election. Even when she did get elected, five years after that, she found herself playing catch-up with men whose own careers hadn't missed a beat.
The scheme she unveiled this week aims to shift the culture by helping fund returner schemes in sectors from retail to law, tech and science, which could then be copied more widely. The idea is for employers to stop thinking of women who’ve taken a career break as having fallen into an abyss, and start thinking of them as a wasted resource – a pool of perfectly capable people who’d have decades of successful working life left in them, given half a chance. But given that Theresa May is looking more than a little professionally lost herself these days, all this has a deeper political resonance.
The days when even non-Tory voters could feel a tiny bit excited about having an avowedly feminist prime minister are all but gone. When May tweeted, praising all the “bloody difficult women” on the women’s march in London at the weekend – echoing a phrase Ken Clarke famously used about her – she was promptly accused of hijacking a hashtag while having nothing much to say. Her critics argue that women’s refuges being threatened with closure, women detained at the notorious Yarl’s Wood immigration centre going on hunger strike over the conditions or women suffering more than men from welfare and spending cuts are hardly evidence of a feminist revolution. And while a Conservative prime minister is probably never going to look like Labour voters’ idea of a sister, she hasn’t yet found a female-friendly cause to make her own. This might just be her chance to leave a mark on women’s everyday lives, a legacy other than Brexit.
But you don’t have to wish Theresa May well with her own professional reinvention to hope that the returners’ scheme works out. You don’t even have to accept that she is a feminist at heart. You just have to think that, on the whole, lost women deserve a chance – to look around and realise quite how many women are out there, waiting to be found.