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Updating with a little help from friends

A Bristol University course is givingprofessional women the confidence they need to get back into the workforce after having children. Martin Whittaker reports

A DOZEN women sit in a semi-circle. Some are clearly nervous. One by one they stand up to give a five-minute presentation.

Their subjects vary from cranial osteopathy and public speaking to horoscopes and fertility treatment. Each presentation is recorded on video and is played back to the group, who are then asked to give constructive criticism.

Some admit that they have been dreading this. Yet these are all articulate, highly qualified, professional women who have left good careers to bring up children.

They include accountants, teachers, a barrister, a solicitor and an architect. After several years out of the labour market, they are trying to get back in with the help of this course, Professional Updating for Women, run by Bristol University's department for continuing education.

But surely such highly qualified and experienced people should breeze back into their careers - do they really need help?

Yes, says course tutor Sheila Trahar. "Research indicates that the longer they're out of work the harder it is to get back in," she explains.

"Some of the women here haven't been out of work very long, so we're more likely to be just the kick start they need. I think a lot of it is their own perception. They really do lose confidence."

The course lasts 15 weeks. Students get a taste of fundamentals such as CVs, application forms and interview technique, as well as more managerial skills such as networking, team working and time management.

It is free and its 24 students have childcare and travel expenses paid for. The day is also tailored to fit in with school and nursery pick-up times.

Students are encouraged to do work experience and the course gives them credits towards an MSc in management for professionals.

As the women in one group view their presentations on video and give feedback on them, they are very supportive of one another.

"I think a lot of it is what they can get from each other," says Ms Trahar. "They come together with a group of people who are bright and intelligent like they are, and they get a tremendous amount from each other.

"But we don't pull any punches. On the one hand we are supportive, but on the other we say that if you want to get back into work, these are the things you now actually have to do in the workplace. So the whole course is really designed to help them once they're back at work."

One student is Kathy Brown, 36, who did a law degree and went on to teach in further education. Now she has two children at home and one in school and is looking for a new direction.

"I think one of the big things that comes from this course is the attempt to build confidence and make you think you're worthy as a person to do a job, " she says. "The thing I expected from the course and have got is the support that perhaps women can give women.

"It's also the fact that we're all graduates. We're not people who didn't do much before having children - sometimes you feel like putting a big banner up saying 'I'm not bloody stupid'."

Fellow student Paula Van Bergen, 39, was a probation officer. "I'm wondering about a change of career at the moment and I think this has been quite helpful," she says.

"The course makes you think about other areas of work where you could slot in without too much difficulty."

Dr Elizabeth Bird, head of Bristol's department for continuing education, has researched extensively the subject of women returners. She says that although the numbers of women on lower and higher incomes going back to work immediately after having children are rising, there is a middle group who are taking longer out.

"The main thing they need help with is confidence," she says. "That is very hard for people to understand. When someone discovers the confidence to come here and find out about the course it's actually the biggest step they've taken.

"And this is to do with a whole lot of things that aren't researched. People feeling out of touch, lacking in confidence, lost all the networks they had when they were at work. Their networks have become those they have through children or husbands. And there's mobility as well - a lot of women move because of being attached to husbands."

Dr Bird says existing courses are inadequate. "Using a word processor is what's largely offered for the run-of-the-mill woman returner. But here in the South-west there's a decline in demand for clerical skills, so there's absolutely no point in a woman doing a word processing course in order to get a job."

The Professional Updating for Women course is run with European Social Fund money, but with the structure of funding under review, its future is uncertain.

In the meantime, Dr Bird believes other agencies such as training and enterprise councils and professional associations should do more.

"There are very few of these courses, and they are sorely needed because on the whole most of the provision for women returners is pretty feeble."

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