The vast majority of people who take time off to raise children (or other caregiving work) would ultimately like to return to the workplace. But transitioning back isn’t so easy. Research by the Center for Talent Innovation shows that only 73% of highly qualified women who wanted to return to work were able to do so, and just 40% of those landed a regular full-time job. What’s the problem, and how can you overcome it?
One of the biggest challenges professionals face in the midst of a career transition is managing their brand and how they’re perceived. For legal reasons, hiring managers can’t openly say what may be on their minds: that you might be a less committed or effective worker now that you’re a parent and have a “gap in your resume.”
Unfortunately, when a bias is unspoken, it’s much harder to address outright. That’s why it’s on you to proactively address their concerns and show them why they’re unfounded. Here’s how to do it.
First, it’s important to show that your skills are current. Depending how long you were out of the workforce, potential employers might worry that you’re out of touch. You may have had stellar experience in marketing, for instance, but if you left your job in 2006, you’ve missed the entirety of the social media era, and an employer might be justified in wondering if you’ve kept up. Go out of your way to prove them wrong.
Make sure you have a robust LinkedIn profile and consider using other public social media platforms, such as Twitter, to share posts regularly about your industry to show that you’ve kept pace with industry trends. In your cover letter and interviews, be sure to cite any germane volunteer experience. If you helped organize major fundraisers for your child’s school or led a search committee for your favorite charity’s new executive director, those skills are eminently transferable.
That was the strategy Naomi Press followed. A former banker who took 20 years out of the workforce, Press stayed very active in her children’s school. “In truth, running the Parents’ Association was a lot like having a full-time job (without the paycheck),” she says, “so I could talk about my responsibilities in that position and the valuable skills I honed — project management, people management, writing, editing, marketing, etc.” She leveraged those skills — which melded education and business savvy — into a new job as the assistant director of a university program.
Second, keep your network current. Volunteer experience is great, but it may not be enough. “If I was going to land a job,” Press surmised, “it would likely be through networking. I didn’t think my volunteer experience would necessarily convince a random hiring manager that I deserved to get an interview.”
Nancy Park, who recently returned to work at her old company after a five-year break to raise her children, also credits networking with her successful transition. During her time out of the workforce, she stayed in the loop by meeting with her former colleagues every few months, and ultimately heard about an opening — which became her new job — from them.
Third, explain why you’ve chosen this moment to return to the workforce. The hiring manager may have two unspoken concerns:
- Does she really want to be here?
- Does he have childcare figured out, or will he get called away all the time if his kid is sick?
You need to allay the manager’s concerns proactively and explain why you’re applying for this job at this moment. In truth, the need to earn more money might be a factor. But don’t go there, because they’ll wonder if you’ll bolt at the first sign of a higher paycheck from another firm. Instead, stress that you’re eager to return to the workforce so you can make a contribution (and how, specifically, you’d like to do so at their company), and that you’re now in a position to re-enter because your caregiving responsibilities have lightened (perhaps your kids have started school, or you’ve hired a nanny, or they’re older now and need less supervision). That information shows you’ll be a motivated employee and won’t be more distracted by personal obligations than anyone else.
Fourth, reposition your “weakness” as a strength. It’s easy to imagine that your time off work is a weakness; after all, others have been amassing new professional skills and getting promoted while you were on another track entirely. Indeed, hiring managers may well view it that way. But you can’t simply accept that frame and apologize for your choices (“I know I don’t have as much recent experience as the other candidates, but…”).
Indeed, as Park notes, returning to work after time off may be challenging, but so is any kind of change, whether it’s switching firms or moving to a new role. “Don’t overestimate the impact of being out for some period,” she says. “If you were a high performer before and have strong skills and renewed drive to work hard, you can absolutely still add value to a company.”
Plus, parenting has almost certainly taught you important lessons about multitasking, negotiation, persuasion, and stress management — and that may, in fact, make you a more productive and well-rounded employee. Research by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis indicates that while working mothers do experience a productivity dip when their children are small, they actually outpace the productivity of childless women over the course of their careers — likely because they’ve learned how to rigorously maximize their efficiency. Own those skills, and position them as an asset, rather than a weakness — because they are.
Fifth and finally, don’t get discouraged. Even if you’ve been following the steps above, success doesn’t come instantly. Park recalls that it took about a year between deciding to re-enter the workforce and finding the right position, and describes the process as “moderately difficult.” But with time and patience, she landed an exciting opportunity. In the interim, you might consider taking on low-paid (or unpaid) assignments, if you’re confident they’ll lead to new skills or an enhanced network. In my book Reinventing You, I profile Susan Leeds, whose interest in environmental issues prompted her to sign on for a two-year nonprofit fellowship (and a huge pay cut). But the experience and connections ultimately led to a fruitful new career running a public-private environmental partnership.
It’s unfair — but common — for talented professionals to be penalized for taking time off to do caregiving. If you want to return to the workforce, you have to manage and overcome the unspoken assumptions about who you are and what you’re capable of. By making it clear that your skills are current, networking assiduously, showing that you’re motivated, and demonstrating that your caregiving experience is actually a strength, you can go a long way in combatting pernicious stereotypes and re-entering professional life on your own terms.