It’s a fact that women make up half of all entry-level positions. That number drops to 37% in middle management and shrinks to a dismal 19% for C-suite roles. Why? It’s not about talent: I believe it comes down to a caregiving issue (in addition to other workplace obstacles such as gender stereotypes and unconscious bias).
Traditionally, women have been the primary caregivers, which means many do a second shift and, as middle managers, are trying to balance increasing work responsibilities with increasing home responsibilities. Many women who are fortunate enough to have a partner able to cover the financial load may be asking themselves: Should I opt in, opt out or take a career pause?
According to the Harvard Business Review, 43% of highly-qualified women with children are leaving careers or taking a career break. Moreover, 24% of women reported off-ramping to care for an elderly parent. The financial price paid is an 18% decrease in their earning power on average—and a 37% decrease when they’re out for three years or more.
When I was raising my three young kids, I eventually chose to leave the corporate world and start my own business in order to create the workplace culture I wanted but couldn’t find. In my new company, I created the un-corporate rules so that everyone could thrive in the workplace throughout their various life stages. I’ve found that one of three things tend to happen when women get more responsibility at home: They opt out completely and then coming back is quite difficult; opt in and often struggle with work-life balance; or start their own company to create their own corporate rules.
The ultimate goal is to find ways to create new workplace rules—including at traditional companies—that allow people at any life stage to have a life as well as rise into leadership positions.
Moreover, companies should recognize that they’re missing out on an amazing talent pool, and would be smart to keep these women engaged while they’re out and marketable by offering programs where they can stay connected, keep up-to-speed on skills and learn about new developments.
To help women career breakers who are looking to go back to work—either because their children are older, out of financial necessity or from a desire to use their skills in the workplace—a growing number of companies are offering “returnships,” or internship-like programs focused on the talent pool sitting on the sidelines.
“Returnships are a low-risk way for employers to evaluate potential talent,” says Carol Fishman Cohen, cofounder and CEO of iRelaunch, a career re-entry company that’s focused on women who are eager to return to the workforce after a career pause. “These programs are also excellent for the returning workers as they provide support, updating and a cohort of like-minded professionals experiencing the transition together.”
Young & Rubicam (Y&R), a global advertising agency, recently launched “PowerOn,” a career reboot program designed to help caregivers who left their advertising careers and are now looking to return. Candidates apply to be “hired” as interns and engage in a 12-week training program to catch up on skills, the industry and their advertising network.
“These smart, educated women are having difficulty finding opportunities because of the time they have been out of the workforce,” says Shelley Diamond, Y&R’s Chief Client Officer. “They may lack confidence, or have been out of touch with their networks. The flip side is that, while they may need to update their skills, those skills can be learned but the life experiences they’ve gained can make them more valuable employees.”
Returnship option or not, it’s up to you to own your destiny . Whether you’re considering taking a career break, are currently on a break, or are looking to reenter the workplace after being out, here are tips to help you take control of your professional path.
If you’re considering taking a pause
Let’s be honest, at some point we’ve all likely considered taking a career break. Here is what to do before you turn in your office ID:
Consider whether you need to pause your career completely. Perhaps a flexible work schedule or only a short-term leave would allow you to better balance home and work. You might try asking for what you want, and researching options within your company and state. New York State now offers employees up to eight weeks of paid family leave at reduced pay.
If your current company doesn’t offer flexibility, you might try searching for jobs that do before you decide that a career pause is the best solution for you and your lifestyle needs. For example, Power To Fly is a job-matching platform for women in tech to find positions that meet their lifestyle needs.
Seek out your “occupational happiness.” My friend Deborah Newmyer, author of Moms for Hire, suggests that you figure out what she calls your “occupational happiness,” or the thing(s) that you love about your job/life before you leave to see if you can do more of the stuff that drives you.
“There’s a real decline in women’s wage and status trajectories: At 31 years old, women make 91 cents on the dollar compared to men, but at 35 women make only 81 cents on the dollar. You have to ask yourself as a new mom, ‘Am I really going to commit to my career these next nine years?’” says Newmyer. “It’s not easy, and sometimes you just have to fake it, but uncovering your ‘occupational happiness’ can help you survive your messy middle years. Focusing on what you love about your job—and your life—can help you stay in the game.”
Document your milestones in real time. While you’re still working, create an e-file of experiences, both positive and negative, describing what your role was and what you learned from it. You’ll need to have these anecdotes ready for when you’re returning to the workforce and going on interviews, and it’s tough to remember if you’re out for a few years, says Fishman Cohen.
Build relationships with interns. Before you go, nurture relationships with those junior to you—they may be your hiring manager when you return. “I was in banking in the late 80s, and my company collapsed while I was on maternity leave with my first child,” says Fishman Cohen. “I had three more kids in quick succession and took 11 years off.” She says that a research analyst just out of college at her firm when she off-ramped rose the ranks and helped her get her foot in the door at a new firm when she was ready to return to work.
If you’re currently a career breaker
If you’re like 93% of women, you will want to return to work after a career break. Here is how to make sure you stay engaged:
Continue reading industry trades. Keep current with the lingo, trends, mergers, innovations and key industry players. By staying in the know, you’ll have a smaller learning curve should you want to reenter at a later date.
Be social—online and offline. Stay active on LinkedIn and other social platforms. Post comments, share articles. Make human contact too! Have lunch or coffee monthly to keep your network aware you haven’t vanished. “If you can’t lean in, keep your foot in the door by keeping up your networks,” says Newmyer. “The best way to find a job whenever you’re ready is through a referral—you have to know somebody who knows somebody.”
Volunteer strategically. “Pick causes that align with your career goals,” suggests Fishman Cohen. If you want to do content marking, you might volunteer to help update your church’s website, or if public relations is your desire, you might spearhead the publicity campaign for the school fundraiser.
If you’re looking to return
There are a lot of ways to jumpstart your return once you’re ready to go back. Here are a few:
Re-evaluate what you want. “The most important step that you take when you’re ready to relaunch is to figure out what you want to do all over again,” says Fishman Cohen. “You need to do a brand-new career assessment because your skills and interests may have changed.” Reflect back on your previous jobs and volunteer experiences to uncover what you loved most and what you’re best at doing. Consider taking online courses or getting a certification for the positions you want to pursue.
Pick three people in your network to review your resume. Get their feedback and edit accordingly. Don’t be shy about tapping them for help to connect you to job prospects.
Know the three C’s. “There are three C’s to consider when relaunching your career,” says Fishman Cohen. “The key things to evaluate before starting the process are control (your schedule), content (what your job will be) and compensation (will I be paid what I am worth?). You may have to compromise on one if you’ve been out for a long time, such as trading some compensation in order to have more control or flexibility. But you should never have to compromise on more than one.”
Tell your exit story, no apologies. Practice telling your story out loud, either to a friend or by recording it. “Do not apologize for taking a career break. Acknowledge it and then explain why you are the best person for the job,” says Fishman Cohen. Newmyer advises, “The most important thing is the belief that you are entitled to a healthy ambition, and you can simultaneously raise thoughtful children. They’re both rewarding. Don’t forget about yourself.”
Have you considered a career break? Do you have some tips on how to re-enter the workplace? Please share your stories in the comments below and let’s keep the conversation going.
Shelley Zalis is CEO of The Female Quotient, which is in the business of gender equality. Follow her on Twitter or connect with her on LinkedIn.