There are very little opportunities for professional women to re-enter the competitive market after a sabbatical to raise a family or pursue higher education. You! takes a look...
Asma was 32 when she decided to take a longer break than the maternity leave allowed to her by the company, while giving birth to her first child. She spent seven years at the workplace and had climbed the ladder quite well, but decided to resign and devote all her time to the baby. At the time of her resignation, she was a Senior Manager and her prospects of promotion were high but her motherly instinct told her ‘to be a full-time mom and rejoin work when the child starts school’.
Five years and two children later, she realised she was ready to resume her job. What she didn’t realise was that in those five years, the workplace had transformed massively. Competition grew; fresh graduates with unique skill sets came into the market, the demand and kind of work required from professionals in her field also changed immensely. Since she had been out of the market, her connections had become irrelevant and her skill set was almost obsolete. After some time, Asma realised that she has to struggle twice as much to re-enter the market and figured that if she wanted to start afresh, she may have to compromise on a lot of things.
Asma is just one of the many women who have difficulty re-entering the workplace after a career break. And as unfortunate as it may be, there are very little opportunities for professionals to re-enter the competitive market after a sabbatical to raise a family or pursue higher education. This is perhaps one of the reasons why women, who are serious about their careers, don’t take a break even when they give birth and try to balance families and work at the same time; despite it taking a toll on their health. This is also one of the reasons why women who start working right after undergraduate often don’t opt for postgraduate at all. They are afraid of leaving the workforce and not being able to find a place upon their return
What the professionals say...
Whether a career break is a good idea depends on the context and the reason behind it. To shed light on this, Sadia Khurram, Chief Customer Experience Officer at Jazz, says, “I took a two-year break to pursue an MBA at MIT Sloan Business School after devoting over 15 years to the telecom sector. I chose to take a break because I wanted to expand my horizon, get exposure of innovation in a global setting and develop a diverse network of friends and mentors. This academic sabbatical opened doors to great opportunities that I would not have considered earlier. My work and personal life are very well integrated and coexist quite comfortably, which is probably one of the biggest reasons behind my success.”
According to Sadaf Zarrar, Head of Integrated Marketing Communications at The Coca Cola Company and Blogger at ‘Siddy Says’, “Any developed market or economy understands the importance of women in the workforce and therefore all companies need to enforce parent-friendly policies.” Having spent 14 continuous years in the corporate sector, Sadaf believes that career breaks are a personal choice for people but the company’s role should be to ensure facilitation in such case.
“Whether we admit it or not, it is always a struggle getting back and if one chooses to take a break they should stay in touch with their field, read up and stay connected to their networks,” suggests Sadaf who is a mom too. “Striking a balance as a mom and as a professional is hard. I don’t balance honestly but I do try to integrate my life better,” she adds.
Sharing her views, Amna Moeen, an HR professional working in the telecom sector, says that getting back to work after a career break was the hardest thing for her. “I took a break due to some complications in my pregnancy and by the time my child was six months old, I realised I was obsolete for the market. I literally had to pursue another degree, MS in HR from NUST, get an unpaid internship and then finally land an entry-level position. I am forever traumatised by it and now realise how difficult it is to come again in the market,” she elucidates.
It does seem like most women in the corporate sector believe that a career break is a bad idea and re-entering the workplace can be challenging but professionals in academia have a slightly different viewpoint. Ayesha Bano, Assistant Professor at FAST, who took a two-year break from work and has just returned to work, tells this scribe that she personally thinks a career break is a great idea. “It helps rejuvenate and return with a renewed spirit to work. In my case, I was completely burnt out from six years of struggling work and family so the break did wonders for me,” she comments. However, she is of the view that maintaining contact and relationships with people from the industry is crucial during a career break and can be very challenging. “You must be in touch with people who realise and believe in your potential. Moreover, having a strong support from family and hiring good domestic help is important to be able to come back from work,” she advises.
“One needs to accept the reasons why a break was needed in the first place. I took a small sabbatical last year and when I returned to work, my employer was quite forthcoming and understanding about why I took time off; but generally the public had qualms as to why I needed to take time off,” says Mahnoor Shafiq, a Reading Specialist for the Primary Years Programme (IB).
Offering a unique insight, Fatima Rizvi, an educationist, talks about how it is harder for breastfeeding mothers to return to work as there are hardly any facilities available to them at offices. “Even when there is a Day Care, there is no privacy for breastfeeding and most mothers returning to work often choose not to breastfeed; because it’s either the career or breastfeeding. In a world where UN is running breastfeeding awareness campaigns and highlighting its importance, maybe some incentive can be given to organisations to bring about these infrastructural changes,” she highlights.
“I continuously have to prove that being a mother has not changed anything about me as a professional and taking a career break was the hardest decision because it comes with its own challenges - fear of staying behind, not being a good role model for your child, financial burden, stigma of a stay at home mom etc. All of this adds to the build up of emotions and hormonal changes a new mother goes through,” she elaborates.
The corporate sector’s role
While there is little facilitation provided by the corporate sector to help women re-enter the workforce, some organisations are trying to change things. Nestle Pakistan, for instance, realises that gender diversity is a critical business case not just for their success as a company but also the entire Pakistani nation since about 50 per cent of college graduates are women. Nestle is also a signatory to UN’s Women Empowerment Principles, which make a case for corporates to take action to promote gender equality by offering up to six month maternity leave policy, flexibility to work from other locations and flexible working hours, access to daycare along with anti-harassment laws and ensuring women’s safety at the workplace. The organisation is actively working to integrate and reintegrate women in the workforce.
Coke has similar programmes, globally, but is still struggling to implement this in Pakistan. The telecom sector is also trying its best to hire more women, provide facilitation in terms of day care but there have been no active efforts to help women or to provide facilitation to them on a career break, trying to get back to the workplace. It may take years of efforts before such programmes are implemented across the corporate sector and women are given the confidence that they can take a break without the fear of becoming obsolete forever.
Career re-launch programme for women
It’s a positive sign that organisations are now considering how tough it is for women to balance work, giving birth and raising children at the same time. It’s also very positive to see career re-launch programmes for women that help them get back into the workforce after a break. One of them is ‘She Returns’.
‘She Returns’ is an 8-week career re-launch programme designed to empower women who wish to return to work after a career break. The curriculum has been carefully put together to ensure that participating women develop the skills necessary to thrive in today’s work environment with confidence. Candidates enrolled in the programme are women who have taken a break from their careers are empowered with skills needed to re-enter the workforce.
The programme works to rebuild confidence, help candidates to set goals, manage time and practice interviews. This programme is not just helping women by encouraging them to find their confidence, staying visible in the job market through better structuring of their CVs and resumes and by enabling them to learn relevant soft skills and leadership potential. Interestingly, this programme is also helping organisations gain access to new talent, achieve their inclusion and gender diversity goals and creating a culture of empathy within the organisation. It’s a win-win situation for everyone!
Re-entering the workplace can be very challenging and professionals who take their career seriously should try to avoid breaks. However, it can and has been done in the past, and women can continue to re-enter the workplace in the future too. They just have to be very intelligent and ready to take on more challenges.
Analyse your decision while taking a break: Taking a career break can be a very hard decision to make. What most professionals fail to realise at the time of putting up that resignation is, that it is what follows that’s actually even harder. It’s easier to think that one needs a break but when that person has been working for years, sitting idle at home is not the most ideal situation either. Also, entering the market again is hard so one must analyse the decision several times before opting for it.
Bolster your confidence: Taking a break from something one is good at can really play with one’s confidence. Stay-at-home moms in particular lose faith in their ability to appear professional. This is why it is even more important to bolster one’s confidence by practicing their pitch, meeting people regularly and speaking to them.
Update your skills: While on a career break, it’s a wise decision to stay in touch with your field and keep refreshing your skills every now and then. If you don’t brush up your skills often, chances are that by the time you feel you are ready to return to the workplace, there will be a pool of fresh talent with new skills to compete with.
Network with extra enthusiasm: Networking is extremely important to find new opportunities and land good jobs but it becomes even more important when you decide to take a career break. A career break makes you disappear from the job market and that’s when it’s even more important to know and meet the right people, who can help you get back whenever you feel you are ready.
Restart from somewhere: After taking a break, it is wise to start from somewhere - whether it is a short-term consultancy or a volunteer gig - because what’s most important is to increase your visibility and build your brand again.