After a Gap: 8 Strategies for Transitioning Back into The Workforce
Yes, even the best and the brightest are ignored, then underpaid. But you can fight back
There is a new phenomenon that is sweeping across America. Started by Stanford Business School and seconded by Harvard Business School, more graduate schools and even colleges are recognizing that their female graduates, whether they stayed in their careers or ratcheted down, face “gendered” life paths, and need a different kind of support over their lifetimes. These institutions are creating Women’s Circles, where female graduates of mixed ages gather monthly to share joys, regrets and current personal or career issues. Sheryl Sandberg, as one might expect, is on top of this too. She has created Lean In Circles, which the Lean In website describes as venues where women can be “unapologetically ambitious, give voice to our dreams and get the push we need to start chasing them.”
An issue that comes up frequently in these Circles is how ambitious women can balance their careers with parenting. When faced with the frequently impossible demands of working full-time and raising children, a significant number of women – who are financially able to make such choices — shift to part-time or flex-time work or opt to stay at home with their kids. Studies from several top universities show that more than 40 percent of their female baby boomer graduates are not in the full-time workforce. In my work I have found the number to be even higher; for example, over 60 percent of my female Harvard Business School classmates have scaled back their careers by their early 50s. This decision typically happens with the arrival of the second child.
But that is only part of the story.
The bigger and largely unacknowledged challenge is what happens when these women want to reboot their careers. Few institutions are addressing the biases and barriers – both societal and self-imposed – that thwart women in these efforts. Even women with fancy degrees from high-powered institutions are not welcomed back into the leadership tracks they left or the high-impact careers they once held (or were working toward).
The reality is that when women try to transition back, many of them end up in part-time work, self-employed jobs such as career coaching or contract consulting, start small businesses, or remain at home and volunteer in their communities. At a time when the top ranks of business, law and other fields continue to be dominated by men, society is missing out on the talent of a significant segment of its female population.
As long as women continue to be the bearers and primary rearers of children, there is no quick fix to the complicated problem of how men and women can achieve parity in the workforce. Before we can come up with feasible solutions, we need to understand the experiences of these women, the barriers they face, and the factors that contribute to a successful transition back. As a Director of the Harvard Alumni Association, I had the opportunity to interview alumnae from across the university and to test my findings on graduates from Harvard and other universities. What I heard was generally the same story — satisfaction about the extra time spent with families, but also regret about how temporary decisions to give up demanding jobs unknowingly became permanent or semi-permanent life choices.
The Secret Disappointment of Family/Work Tradeoffs
Most women, even those who were content to spend more time at home, were leading different lives from what they expected when leaving college or graduate school. The HBS Gender Initiative 2015 survey found that women’s expectations to “successfully combine their careers with their personal and family lives…..have largely not been met.” Most felt that they became the primary childcare giver in their relationship.
For many, the pressure of balancing both roles was overwhelming, which resulted in a choice to scale back. The actual decision to leave the workplace was sometimes made on a single day where there was a sudden crisis at home that “broke the camel’s back.” It could have been dealing with a child’s illness, a problem with a nanny, a commuting snafu, or a troublesome call from the school. One woman, who made a special effort to race home early to give her daughter a bath but found herself thwarted by a cancelled commuter train said, “I sat on the platform, cried, and decided to quit work the next day.” Fifteen years later, however, she expressed a sense of loss: “I had given up work too easily.
To be fair, some of these women had already begun either questioning their initial career choices or their chosen work environments, which made making seemingly snap decisions to bail on their careers much easier.
Once home, many women felt guilty that they were not meeting the expectations of achievement they had internalized from an early age. Others expressed loneliness, as their former circle of female working friends became dismissive of them. At the same time, many stay-at-home mothers, particularly those who had not previously pursued ambitious careers, were hesitant to include them. Feeling like “a fish out of water” and lacking an identity and a support system, these women began to feel isolated, anxious, and less confident, feelings aggravated by their need to prioritize constantly the needs of others, while no one was prioritizing them.
In addition, numerous women were surprised to discover that they were assuming more traditional gender roles in their marital relationships. Without the economic power of a full-time salary, they believed their negotiating positions about family choices were weaker, even on issues that belonged in their new domains at home. As one woman explained, “It was like I was stepping back in time and I needed to adopt a more traditional female negotiating style. I wasn’t prepared for this.” Hannah Riley Bowles, in a webinar for the Harvard Alumni Association, has noted that many women tend to perform better when negotiating for others than when negotiating for themselves. Many of the women I spoke with told me they were able to advocate for their children at school, but they were less comfortable championing their own needs with their mates.
A segment of women were vociferous in their beliefs that they were fulfilled as mothers, volunteers and community leaders. They extolled the benefits of their top degree(s), even if they were not employing them in their original field of study. These women, who were previously frustrated with the often-opposing needs of work and family, valued the time they now had to devote to their families, schools and local charities.
However, it appears that only a small number of these highly educated women wanted to remain at home once their children rearing duties waned. The HBS Gender Initiative survey indicated around 10 percent of alumnae who took time off for child rearing expressed that they did not intend to return to the workforce at some point.
Non-linear and Zigzag Careers: A Forced Choice?
When I was a student in the late 1970s, I attended a series of panels at what was then Radcliffe College, in which successful women reflected on their ability to combine careers and family life; they sent the message that it was easy to have both at once.
However, the current reality for many women, as described by journalist Sarah Vine, is that “the dream of having it all became the nightmare of doing it all.” Instead, women began talking about zigzag careers, sometimes referred to as nonlinear careers, in which women make multiple, horizontal moves to seek either work that they are more passionate about or an environment that is more supportive. At a recent “Nonlinear Careers” panel at an Oxford University College, one attendee noted “women often enjoy changing direction and retraining rather than viewing a climb up the ladder as the only measure of success.”
Nora Ephron, who had many different stints in writing and film, explained in her 1996 Wellesley commencement speech a woman’s more expansive view of her choices: “When two paths diverge in a wood, we get to take them both. It’s another of the nicest things about being women.” Viewing a career as nonlinear is helpful for women who take time off for family needs, as they can regard their time out as a temporary “fork in the road” and an opportunity to retool before coming back.
Transitioning Back: Unexpected Roadblocks
In reality, after “zig-zagging” to include time raising children, it is challenging for women to transition back to their previous or alternative careers. Women described roadblocks ranging from employers’ reluctance to consider them to their own frustrations of feeling “stuck in inertia” and an inability to define what they wanted next.
The biases women face because of their age and resume gaps can lead to a plethora of job rejections. Recruiters, even those women had employed in their previous searches, dismiss them. One woman who had ample relevant volunteer experience, applied for several paid board positions in education but could not get past the recruiters’ algorithms to obtain an interview. Women also receive uneven support from other working women. While some female executives make active efforts to bring women back into corporate life, and often sponsor return-to-work programs, others are more reluctant to help. My interviewees frequently brought up the issue of how women treat each other.
Job rejections have a significant impact on women who are already feeling pangs of insecurity. While certain women consciously sacrifice pay for flexibility, the majority of my interviewees found that they have to settle for less than they are worth, both in terms of seniority and salary. One woman expressed that she was “grateful and relieved to be hired” but later regretted that she “did not push for more.” Another woman explained that it took her “a few years of underpay” before she was confident enough to renegotiate her salary. She said she was “egged on” by her husband, who was “outraged” by how she was being treated.
While one interviewee calculated her underpay at 15 percent, large scale studies both in the US and UK indicate that the degree of underpay for women returning to the workforce is much higher. Jeff Hyman, an Adjunct Professor at Northwestern University and founder of the executive recruitment company Strong Suit Executive Search, estimated that it could be as high as 60 percent, because recruiters and employers tend to penalize people who have taken long gaps for motherhood, as well as applicants who apply for jobs without a current position; women are often penalized for both. The difficulty of being rehired can lead women to pick the default option of applying for jobs in more female-friendly fields, such as early or adult education or non-profit work, which pay less but “would take them with their gaps.”
When The Wrong Career is Chosen to Impress Others
Potential employers cannot be blamed for all the hiring difficulties. The women themselves often vacillate in their understanding and expression of what they want, particularly in terms of work flexibility. One employer expressed frustration with women who did not know if they wanted part-time or flex-time work, which, she said, are “two very different ways of working.” Other traditional employers find part-time employees harder to manage; they offer fewer part-time positions that come with responsibility and upside. Carol Fishman Cohen of iRelaunch, a company focused on career re-entry, observed that women who sign up for her returner programs seeking part-time roles quickly learn that they will have greater success by looking for full-time internships, which are more available.
Other soft factors hold women back. Some women said they feel burdened by the realization that they had chosen the wrong career or wrong major in college. In making their initial career decision, women often take jobs to meet the perceived expectations of others, which can, as Michelle Obama put it in her book Becoming, “put you on the established path — the my-isn’t-that-impressive path.” Obama went on to say that “somehow in all my years of schooling, I hadn’t managed to think through my own passions and how they might match up with work I found meaningful,” a sentiment echoed by many of the women I interviewed.
Some women find it “too daunting” to start over again and retrain for a different career.
Several have problems generating sufficient momentum due to lack of support from their husbands or other family members. One coach, who facilitated a group of educated stay-at-home moms seeking to transition back to work outside the home, found that one-third of the women took no action on their career ideas between meetings. Alternatively, many women were too immersed in their children’s lives or wrapped up in their own activities to create real action. These women often missed out on a full-fledged second career because they waited too long to actively prepare for a transition and eventually moved on from mothering to grand-mothering, from being the wife of a husband who prioritizes his career to building a joint retirement life, or from raising children to taking care of elderly parents.
8 Strategies For Transitioning Back Into the Workforce
The good news is that a number of women viewed their “gap time” as an opportunity to parent, help others, develop interests and prepare for a transition. I interviewed women who had returned to careers to find out if they had tips to share (see chart below). While their practical advice might seem obvious to some, it is not to those who are absorbed in childcare and caregiving responsibilities, and who have active lives at home. Women in these situations often have few people to turn to for guidance. Their own stay-at-home mothers, for example, lack the experience to assist them through this period, and their universities, which were trying to provide equal education to both sexes, were not acknowledging that women’s post-graduation experiences could be very different than mens.’
Women who have been successful in returning to the workforce recommended starting to plan and prepare as early as possible, even before leaving the workforce, and to develop a strategic approach to building and maintaining skills and networks.
1. Maintain and develop your office skills
Women who were successful at re-entering the workforce report that it is critical to brush up your digital skills, such as Excel and PowerPoint; not doing so can create a major barrier. Likewise, those in fast-changing industries such as biotech and technology remained knowledgeable by reading relevant trade magazines and attending conferences. Some enrolled in short certificate programs that confirmed their fluency with new skills or research in their fields. Other women went further and retrained by taking courses at local universities or online.
Some women were also aware of the “inventory” of the soft skills they have developed while managing children and households, and sold them as strengths to potential employers. According to Galit Pearlman, head of Executive Recruiting at JP Morgan Chase, “A returner brings to an organization maturity, prior work and life experiences and an ability to understand how to navigate an organization, corporate skills sets, organization skills, time management — lots of skills that they have been able to brew, enhance and develop in the time that they have spent both at work and outside of work.” While some industry executives acknowledged the strong organizational and interpersonal skill sets these women could bring, many did not. (Groysberg and Connolly. JP Morgan Chase: Tapping an Overlooked Talent Pool. Boston. Harvard Business Publishing 2018)
2. Nurture your networks
Hyman estimates that nearly 80% of manager and executive-level jobs are found through personal relationships, versus 10% via job postings and 10% through recruiters. Build networks of people who can help you throughout the transitioning process by engaging in – informal coffees and lunches, on social media like LinkedIn and Facebook, and more formal industry events, company and alumni get-togethers, and university lecture series. Networking is particularly important in our digital age when employers are inundated with online applications. A personal recommendation encourages a closer look and “de-risks the hire” for the company.
3. Take on volunteer leadership positions
Leadership positions within local communities or at your children’s schools provide intellectual and social engagement, skill development, and networking opportunities. One woman ran a regional group of university alumni interviewers on a volunteer basis and was able to offer this experience to her future employer as evidence that she could handle responsibility, manage and motivate volunteers, and deal with sticky political issues. Another woman met the person who would become her business partner through her children’s parent-teacher association.
Numerous women said it was helpful to get on co-ed boards that were not the typical female dominated charity fund-raising boards, though these positions were harder to obtain without the status conferred by a current work title or the funds to make a large donation. As an alternative, women found that co-ed alumni boards and other alumni leadership positions were substantially more attainable as they rewarded investments of time in activities such as interviewing, fund-raising and organizing reunions.
4. Prepare for your interviews
Employment coaches and career classes helped women to market themselves better, negotiate higher salaries and positions, locate positions that fit their non-standard resumes, and perfect their interview answers, particularly on questions about career gaps. Career preparation classes also facilitated introductions to like-minded women who provide supported and practical advice.
5. Check your university for post-graduate career counseling programs and courses
Many colleges and graduate schools now offer alumni programs such as career counseling, webinars and career reboot weekends. Additionally, universities have been reliable sources of flexible and full-time employment for women transitioning back. Oxford University, for example, hired one of its alumnae who was at home with her children to work a few days a week during school hours to develop programs for female graduates.
6. Research and sign up with private-sector returnships and internships
Several companies now work directly with employers to create internships and other flexible programs designed to bring back talented and mature employees. These companies, often started by women who have taken a parenting gap, create “returnships” aimed exclusively at people who have taken time off, primarily women. Some companies are also developing their own internships to attract middle-aged talent, in part to even out the gender imbalance in the senior ranks. Although women generally welcome these programs, some report that they feel a little too mature for the positions they are given.
7. Consider a stepping-stone approach
Jumping back into the exact position you want is not always feasible. Multiple women chose to take jobs for which they are overqualified in order to gain experience and obtain new references, and then later pivoted to positions more commensurate with their skills and qualifications. Before applying for jobs at social media and technology firms, one woman became a blogger to show employers she had something to say and followers who valued her opinion.
8. Explore new fields
While they are at home, women’s ideas of what they want to do sometimes change, given their new experiences, responsibilities, and time out of the “rat race”. One woman, for example, became a writer of comic books, explaining that the dialogue in cartoons was similar to the PowerPoints she used to create as a consultant. Others chose new routes that involved entrepreneurship, often finding it helpful to work with business partners who could encourage and support them.
Women have also become more involved in angel and other kinds of financial investments, with women-only communities established to facilitate this. Others, who were in a sufficiently secure financial position, chose to focus on putting their personal talents and sometimes-joint marital resources, into large-scale charitable work outside their immediate communities. Additionally, a handful of women, who had not previously prioritized financial rewards, now had to target higher-paying jobs due to changes in their marital status or their partner’s health. As one divorced mother said, “You never know what life is going to bring.”
Navigating a New Way Forward
Despite the obstacles, women can take several steps toward achieving the twin goals of being both mothers and leaders in their chosen field.
First, we need to acknowledge and understand that there are real differences between female and male experiences in the working world after college and graduate school. This means sharing the conversations that are happening in small groups of women with a broader audience, including men, so everyone can be part of the solution. These discussions can help more women understand that their decisions to spend time at home does not mean their professional lives are over. As Jane Veron, CEO of The Acceleration Project, a company focused on mobilizing untapped female talent, said, “Just because you have made a choice, you are not stuck with it. Deal with it, move forward, and get out of the house.”
By speaking openly about the issues, younger women will become more aware of the real-life trade-offs, alternative career paths, and the potential time commitments associated with different jobs. They will then be able to choose careers or companies more carefully, strategically plan their decisions on when, and whether, to have children, and to select partners who can help them in the ways they need it. A better understanding of the potential consequences of their choices will help young women put in place support structures (family childcare) or careful logistics (choosing a minimal commute), to mitigate having to “abort” their careers in a peremptory manner due to emergencies or overwhelming stress.
Secondly, universities need to help their students, both male and female, find work they consider meaningful and provide a better work/life balance. Williams College, for example in their winter session from 1996-2018, ran a seminar entitled Composing a Life: Finding Success and Balance in Life after Williams. Likewise, Stanford University offers a course called Design Your Life, which is one of the school’s most popular classes. Some universities have also facilitated student discussions with alumnae who have left careers to raise families.
Universities need to do much more to help alumnae who have had career gaps due to child rearing. They can train and encourage their prominent alumni to offer these women actual job opportunities, in the same way they do for their students and recent graduates. Universities must also devote resources to studies on the future nature of work, examining what will be the most effective work patterns and structures for navigating this increasingly global and digital age.
Finally, in order to retain women in the workplace, work cultures must profoundly change. Companies are finally beginning to get the message that drawing and retaining top talent requires creative and varied work trajectories. Some firms now offer four-day weeks, contract work and gig jobs, paternity leave, onsite childcare, sabbaticals and returnships. Many offer widespread digital connectivity for employees who choose to work from home. Currently, women and some millennial men who want more balance, seek out these programs. Companies need to go further and change their attitudes towards employees who have career gaps by viewing their careers holistically over a lifetime. This has relevance for everyone, as our longer lifespans will make it harder for anyone to have a full-on career without a gap of some sort.
In conclusion, while women are increasingly obtaining degrees from top educational institutions, they are finding that these degrees are less of a “golden passport” than for their male peers. As a result, we are seeing two gendered career paths: one for mostly men who land jobs with the most upside for financial and leadership, and the other for women who want more time to raise children and consequently end up with jobs with more flexibility but fewer financial rewards. To address this, we need to acknowledge the problem and find ways to support women – and men – who decide to take time off. In doing so, we will help create a stronger and more diverse workforce where fewer people have to choose between family and work.