AnnaMarie Houlis via Fairygodboss
Coming back from a career break is no easy feat. It can be difficult to adjust to the workplace again, explain the reason behind your resume gap and find a job at the right seniority level — especially when perspectives on what level is appropriate can differ.
To this latter point, one woman took to FGB to anonymously ask for others’ thoughts. As someone who hasn’t personally taken a career break herself, she admitted to having some internal conflict over what job level constitutes a fair expectation for those re-entering the workforce to have.
“How do you feel about women re-entering the workforce after being out of it for years and expecting to be equal to those working for years? I am a mid-career manager who has worked hard to balance full-time employment, professional development and motherhood for nearly 20 years and, during that time, many women I worked with left the workforce to focus on raising their children and, now that the children are older, they want to jump back in — in many cases at a similar level to where I am,” the user explains. “More than a few connections have asked for references or introductions to help them secure senior management roles as they re-enter when they left the workforce as entry or associate level.”
It’s a tough question to answer, considering it speaks to a situation many hard-working women have been in. Studies show, after all, that during the course of their careers, 43% of working moms will leave the workforce at least temporarily — and that’s only encompassing women who’ve left for traditional caregiving reasons. Others may have taken a career break for reasons like going back to school or to focus on their health, and many women who pause their careers do so out of a lack of alternatives.
When re-entering the workforce, then, it makes sense these women would hope to return at the same level from which they departed, if not a level more closely aligned with their age and life experience. In the case of the aforementioned FGB’er, she spoke of a friend who felt frustrated by the lack of response she was receiving for manager-level positions, as well as frustration over a recruiter who’d told her she wasn’t going to land that level of role after having been out of the workforce for 15 years because “too much has changed.”
“She feels raising her children gave her the same type of experience she would have had if she had stayed in the business world,” the user goes on. “I just don’t understand how you can leave the working world and expect to jump right back in not only where you left off, but at a level you would have achieved if you had stayed. I haven’t burned the candle at both ends for so many years balancing home and work to sit back and say, ‘Why yes, you can have the same job I have even though you have been attending playdates and volunteering in the classroom when I have done those things plus held a full-time job.’ I find these expectations unrealistic, but when I express them, my friend told me I am the problem with women in the working world: We are too competitive or mean to each other.”
It’s no secret that motherhood is a job in and of itself. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with taking time off to start and nurture a family — which includes attending playdates and volunteering in the classroom, both growth experiences in their own way. Comparing stay-at-home motherhood and working motherhood doesn’t get us, as women, anywhere closer to a world devoid of sexism; simply, they’re different situations that are uniquely demanding and challenging.
So, here’s how women in the FGB community feel women should handle re-entering the workforce after taking some serious time off, for any reason.
1. Turn to programs for reintroduction into the workforce.
Returning to the workforce at a higher level than you were at when you left may not come easy. That said, there are tons of resources to help you re-acclimatize to the workforce.
“As for your friends expecting to return to work at your level, they will be quickly disabused of that idea,” one FGB’er wrote in response. “You don’t have to say a word. Just be there for them when the market disappoints them. Then you can tell them about the industry-specific programs that now exist, which are designed specifically for women just like them. These programs bring women, who have been stay-at-home mothers for 20 years, back into the working world.”
2. Understand that what you’ve been doing during your career break contributes to the value and experience you have to offer.
There are ways to build your skillsets beyond just working — by volunteering, running your own small business, blogging, and more.
“What else have they been doing while raising the kids?” asked one FGB’er. “School? Volunteering in a major role? Training? Activism? Running a small business on their own? All of these contribute to the value and experience they have to offer. Now that may not be in any way equivalent to what you have put in, and only you can determine this and how you feel about recommending her. Because our recommendations do reflect on us. And that is important to keep in mind.”
3. Remember that skills and experience come in many forms.
“While I don’t believe people who leave the workforce for 15 years should expect to re-enter at a senior management level, I also don’t think it’s fair to talk down about what your friend does as a stay-at-home mom,” wrote one FGB’er.
You can gain skills and experience from managing a household alone.
“I’m sure it did involve playdates and classroom volunteering, but managing a household is challenging, too,” she went on. “Especially since as a stay-at-home parent, other household/family responsibilities tend to fall on them because they are more difficult for the working parent to accomplish. Skills and experience can come in many forms.”
4. Realize that every woman’s story is different.
“There are different levels of stay-at-home moms; many either have a large [number] of kids and were forced to stop working due to childcare costs, [and there are also] the stay-at-home moms that still do consulting or side hustles to keep skills relevant or bring in money to help out,” wrote one FGB’er.
Women all have their own unique experiences.
“Also there are mothers that end up running PTA meetings or preschool boards that are like full-time jobs for free,” she said. “Most of us don’t stay home to just coordinate playdates or go to the beach. And the years of childrearing gives a whole other new skill set on how to deal with people. I look in awe at moms that work full time and raise their children, and I totally agree that there are levels and you can’t expect to go back to your old capacity and pay scale. But there must be a happy medium out there as going back to work usually is a necessity, not a wish. Both sides need to understand every woman’s story is different.”
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5. Volunteer work can be hugely valuable.
Sometimes, you don’t have a choice but to leave the workforce — and that’s okay.
“I was actually one of those women,” shared one anonymous FGB’er. “As a military spouse with small kids, it made having a full-time career outside the home difficult. However, I continued to use my education and skills as a volunteer, including serving as my sorority’s national director of public relations. I also returned to school to obtain a teaching credential. Six years after ‘leaving’ the workforce, I was hired by the top PR firm in town at a level higher than the position I’d left. I’d be very careful to assess each woman objectively based on her skills and ability to contribute to the organization. I’ve worked with superstar volunteers who would do an amazing job in the workplace.”
6. Have no regrets.
Whatever happens, don’t have regrets about your decisions.
“I stayed home for nine years, but I certainly didn’t expect to jump back in at a higher level than where I left,” wrote another FGB’er. “You’re definitely sacrificing the gains you would have made by staying in the workforce when you choose to stay home. But I don’t regret it; my son has a learning disability, and I think those years helped him in particular. Still, I’m eager to get somewhere now.”
A version of this post previously appeared on Fairygodboss, the largest career community that helps women get the inside scoop on pay, corporate culture, benefits and work flexibility. Founded in 2015, Fairygodboss offers company ratings, job listings, discussion boards and career advice.
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AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreport and Facebook.