Guest post: January Carmalt examines how mums can leap back into the workforce with confidence after the school-run sabbatical.
Gap years. What do we think of them? No, no—think less setting sail to artificially inseminate indigenous blue-footed boobies of the Galapagos– more pram-pushing, nappy changing, food pureeing and later– forging ever more inventive means to entertain restless children during rain-soaked school holidays. Cast aside self-indulgent naval gazing and imagine instead those career-sacrificing years spent at Tumble Tots, play dates and bake sales. Ah yes, those gap years. These past decades women have made pioneering strides combining families with work, carving new roles in the workforce and successful steps toward redistributing parental responsibility. Still, the most casual observer of any school run would note, for better or worse it’s still largely mothers stepping into the role of primary child carer. Indeed, for all our worthy progress, a career and motherhood don’t always make easy bedfellows.
According to a 2012 survey of 60 major corporations conducted by McKinsey and published in the Harvard Business Review, women made up 53% of entry-level positions, but a paltry 19% of executive level roles. Cue motherhood and accompanying usual suspects—long hours, lack of affordable childcare, inflexible working conditions and the complexities of juggling work with family responsibilities and it’s unsurprising women vanish at an alarming rate from the corporate world. Speaking candidly, after 10 years in the City and my little one demanding more of my time, the pressure to give 100% both at work and home became overwhelming; I increasingly felt a failure at both and knew something had to give, whereby began my own ‘gap years.’
Others, having secured that elusive work-life balance either via self-employment or flexible hours may defer the vagaries of hopping off the career conveyor belt entirely yet as regards the latter, part-time too often translates into side-lined when critical, high-profile assignments become reserved for ‘more committed’ full-time workers. Hannah*, a tax consultant from Streatham works two days a week, and though barely covering childcare it proves a means to an end. “It gets the neurons firing and critically keeps my foot in the door. I worry if I quit, it would make coming back that much more difficult.” But it does not have to be this way.
For those taking a career break, whatever the reason, be it financial or personal, there lingers a fear of becoming unemployable, obsolete, even. “That sense of inadequacy lurking in the back of our minds, however misguided, can overwhelm and undermine our confidence, “ explains Becky Webb, executive coach from Surrey and former human resources director from Shell. Which brings us to the dreaded “imposter syndrome”, a condition plaguing so many women at the best of times, can also underscore our hesitation to jump head first back into work.
Indeed, industries and companies evolve and so too job requirements, particularly in this ever changing digital age.
It’s a familiar story. So then what? How do we bridge the gap?
First and foremost Webb argues we should abandon those fears of inadequacy. “It’s critical to market time off as an asset. Never underestimate the skills acquired as a parent—time management, multi-tasking, patience and delegating authority. Embrace them; these are all valuable qualities employers seek when hiring.”
There is also tangible grassroots help to hand in London. Women Like Us was founded in 2005 by colleagues and mothers Emma Stewart and Karen Mattison to assist women back into the workforce after children. Their services include career coaching, CV seminars, workshops and one-on-one sessions with seasoned career consultants, boasting bespoke emphasis on the unique difficulties mothers often face when stepping back onto the career ladder. “At the heart of our service is an understanding of what it feels like to be a parent struggling to balance caring responsibilities with earning an income,’ says Programme Director, Poornima Kirloskar-Saini. Women Like Us has won numerous awards including Best New Social Enterprise, sponsored by Office of the Third Sector, and in 2009 were further recognized with the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in the innovation category. Since opening, Women Like Us have assisted over 5,300 women via their careers advice courses and successfully supported over 2,000 getting back to work after a career break and/or to change their working pattern. Sourcing flexible working conditions remains a key focus for them as well, partnering with both the public and private sectors to encourage and support organisational change and promote flexible hours.
Further, more and more companies are also recognizing this market as an untapped source of talent, with official recruitment programs aimed specifically at luring back those who have taken a career break. As part of their Helping Britain Prosper plan, Lloyds Bank have initiated a returner’s programme focusing on the skilled workforce returning to work after more than two years off. Launched this past summer, its inaugural programme successfully placed 13 new recruits in front office, support and project areas, and hopes to see this number increase going forward. According to Lloyds, “individuals who have been out of the workforce bring a different level of insight and enthusiasm as their motivation for working may have changed post career break.” Indeed, those who return to work after time off frequently find themselves energised by a renewed focus, as opposed to other employees who have been ‘pounding the work treadmill’ continuously over the years. “Employers value the maturity, drive and no-nonsense capability returners often bring,” asserts Webb.
Still struggling to hit your stride? Workingmums.co.uk, one of the largest online communities boasting job listings, advice and forums for, (who else), working mums, suggests brushing up on computer skills via an online course or local college, which demonstrates initiative, preparation and genuine commitment toward heading back to work.
Encouragingly, there seems to be more support than ever to secure our footing back on the corporate ladder. Perhaps most important is to stay confident, knowing motherhood is one of the toughest (not to mention most thankless) jobs around. Remembering this should make bridging that career gap, however and whenever one chooses to cross it, a little less daunting. A structured work environment and adult company can make a refreshing change and prove far simpler than negotiating naptime with a toddler, with the added benefit of an actual pay slip for our troubles.
About our guest blogger …
After 10 years in the City navigating the market swings of the corporate bond world, January swapped her stilettos for the school run, blogging and a pop at becoming a best-selling author. Two kids, a dog and many (many) rejection letters later, follow her meandering missives from the frontline of parenthood and beyond at her wonderful and thought inspiring blog: January Hopes Two Cents