Ban the Box – a Second Chance for Women Ex-offenders?


Blog by Kathryn Nawrockyi, Director, Opportunity Now.


This month BITC launched a radical new campaign, calling on UK employers to Ban the Box and give people a second chance by removing the tick box from application forms that asks about criminal convictions. With 9.2 million people in the UK holding a criminal record, this is not an issue business or society can afford to ignore.

Watch the cleverly devised video for Ban the Box and you see a young man sitting in an interview room, explaining that he was released from HMP Wandsworth 6 months ago. You might be tempted to click a hyperlink at the bottom of the screen that allows you to ‘skip this ad’; cue the interviewee losing his train of thought, telling you – the interviewer – he needs someone to give him a chance, just to listen for 30 seconds. Skip again, and you see him getting more and more desperate, pleading with the interviewer to hear him out, and so on, until the interview comes to an uncomfortable end. Watch the interview all the way through, however, and you see a smart young man talking about his potential for employment – the fact that he has had time to reflect, has taken courses and volunteered to gain work experience, and now feels that a job will give him the opportunity to show what he has to offer.

This experience shows us just how easy it is to write someone off in less than 30 seconds – something the tick box does time and time again. The use of technology in recruitment now makes it even easier to do this without human intervention.

The tick box is a significant barrier to entering employment for many, and yet the costs to business and society are huge. Reoffending costs our society £11 billion a year – a cost shouldered by business, communities and taxpayers alike.  By removing the tick box, we prevent employers from instantly dismissing a candidate because they have a criminal record. Certainly we should consider risk, but a criminal conviction may have no relevance whatsoever to a specific role. The business case is as clear as the economic case – a diverse, engaged workforce is essential to any employer, and in some cases the person who has made a mistake in the past may just be the best person for the job. 

So what does this campaign have to do with Opportunity Now, the gender equality campaign at BITC? Well, in the Venn diagram of our two campaigns there is significant overlap – that of women ex-offenders.  The charity Women in Prison reveals some startling facts. Women make up just 5% of the prison population in the UK; the majority of women sentenced have committed a non-violent offence, and yet appear to receive more severe sentences than men. Due to the limited number of women’s institutions, women are often sent further from home, thereby restricting – even preventing altogether – access to their children. Deeply concerning is the proportion of women that have experienced disturbance prior to incarceration – exclusion from education, time in local authority care, experience of emotional, physical or sexual abuse. On leaving prison, unemployment and lack of skills are significant factors contributing to reoffending.

In 2007 Baroness Corston published her review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system. The findings were shocking; Corston identified that women were marginalised within a system ‘largely designed by men for men and for far too long’, and that it was time to bring about radical change that would respond to the needs of women in the criminal justice system. 

Although improvements have been made since Corston, women leaving the prison system still face multiple barriers – accessing safe and secure accommodation, reuniting with their families (more commonly broken up when the mother is incarcerated than the father) and accessing employment to sustain it all. Now add another layer of complexity – women generally face marginalisation within and exclusion from the workforce. In the UK, women’s unemployment is now at a 25 year high; the UK gender pay gap in median hourly pay is currently 10.2%. Gaining fair access to work is already a challenge for many women – imagine then having to convince an employer to take a chance on you (and that’s assuming you even get past the tick box).

There are organisations out there doing incredible work to support vulnerable women; organisations like Working Chance, which assists women offenders in making the transition into the world of work and employment. Targeted interventions like this for women are so important – we know from 22 years of campaigning for women’s equality in work that equality of treatment does not result in equality of outcome.

The role of employers in this equation is critical; we have seen firsthand at BITC how sustained employment can help break the cycle of reoffending. I am fascinated to see what Ban the Box will do for the employment of women ex-offenders – if allowed to clear the first hurdle, I hope that this will give countless women the opportunity to prove to employers that they have the skills and talent, and may just be the best person for the job.