Following an extended period away from professional life, the return to work may feel quite daunting. How can people best prepare to get back on the career ladder and what can companies do to help?
For anyone that has ever taken time out of their professional career to bring up a family, the return to work may feel like an almost insurmountable challenge. One of the main reasons for that difficulty, according to founder and managing director of the Executive Coaching Consultancy, Geraldine Gallacher, is the dwindling confidence that often comes from being out of the loop for an extended period.
However, in her role as a professional career coach, Gallacher believes that the issue of confidence is often one of gender: women will express their concern more readily than men and (more often than not) it is the woman who will take leave to bring up the family. As such, the majority of women who have been out of the workplace – particularly when starting a family – “imagine that they have somehow lost the ability to concentrate and work at the same pace as they used to”. Although the imagined loss is usually just that – imagined – Gallacher observes that the crisis of confidence can be very real, and is certainly something that is regularly reported to her in a professional context.
This is a man’s world
In a male-dominated professional environment, such as treasury, the return to work for a woman who has taken time out to bring up a family is still something of an issue. The norm is that this is a full-time job requiring time in the office and that a woman with a family could not possibly offer the right level of commitment. For anyone harbouring this view, please read Treasury Today’s November/December Corporate View with Kate Smedley.
Notwithstanding the unenlightened viewpoint possessed by some, a change in attitude is becoming increasingly apparent amongst Gallacher’s younger professional client base. “There’s an increasing number of younger men who are not prepared to take on jobs that prevent them attending to family life, and they are more confident in making that statement,” she notes. However, the shift away from old-school attitudes to family and gender ‘roles’ will not change overnight. Given that the older generations who typically uphold the traditional view are living and working longer, it may be a while yet before full enlightenment is achieved.
Don’t step back too far
With that background in mind, for anyone considering taking a career break, Gallacher points to the development and maintenance of skills that are both specialist and portable as being “the best protection you can have”. Once out of the working environment, keeping up with relevant professional developments is advisable. If at all possible, taking the lead of one of Gallacher’s clients would be the ideal: a professional accountant, she left work to start a family and managed to find a position teaching part-time at her local further education college. “That meant she could not only keep up to speed with the technical aspect of her profession but it was also marvellous for her self-confidence as she went back work.” In fact, she reports, her client went into one of the Big Four and subsequently became a partner.
The good news to be drawn from this is that for someone who has left to start a family there are ways of keeping their skills sharp. But Gallacher argues that taking time out can be the source of many other experiences that develop the individual in positive ways. Time out, she asserts, “is not a step backwards”.
A new skillset
Having spent the last ten years or so helping organisations retain and develop female talent, and having acquainted herself with the research, Gallacher notes that some gender differences do exist. Within the Executive Coaching Consultancy client base there is a predominance amongst female professionals to approach their work with an eye for detail and a need to be in control of every aspect, says Gallacher. Male professionals on the other hand “have a propensity to adopt the 80/20 rule”, working harder on the 20% that will achieve an 80% return. It is, she adds, therefore interesting to note that amongst those women who have left work to have a family there is a realisation that it is not possible to take care of every last detail; when they arrive back in the professional workplace they often bring that more pragmatic 80/20 view with them.
“Ten years ago I would have been horrified to think I’d be making these comments, thinking they are completely sexist,” she says. But whether these differences are a function of nature or nurture, she observes that “they do happen to matter a lot in the context of the workplace”.
Women who have had children and who then return to work are often much better at delegation of tasks and managing time, notes Gallacher. They also tend to be more decisive and are much less inclined to try to please everyone. The explanation is simple: looking after a child demands all these skills in spades.
In response to women feeling less confident about their capacity to take on new professional roles, Gallacher therefore argues that the skills acquired as a mother “actually make you a more suitable candidate”. She goes further to suggest that many women in this position are more ready for the boardroom than many other candidates who have not shared that experience.
But there is a problem. “The biggest issue for returning mothers is other peoples’ bias about them not being so career-engaged,” she comments. “In reality there is no engagement issue. In fact, I find many women are far more intense about their careers than men. For men there is an acceptance that they will have a career; women see no such acceptance.” A UK government study of workplace attitudes carried out a few years ago indicated that returning mothers were in fact amongst the most career-engaged of all demographics, being far better equipped to compartmentalise their lives and manage the professional demands they face.
Get with the programme
Bias against women returners may also be subconsciously perpetrated by recruitment consultants who, Gallacher says, can often be “rather short-sighted” when seeking candidates. It may be easier to place someone who is already in a job than someone seeking to return, but this attitude is unhelpful and in some cases detrimental to the corporate client.
A number of organisations have acknowledged the problem and instead of missing out on a pool of talent they might otherwise never get to hear about, have made a conscious effort to go direct. Bank of America Merrill Lynch, for example launched its annual ‘Returning Talent’ programme last month (closing date 9th January). This supports female and male financial professionals looking to return to work after more than a year out, providing selected candidates with practical workshops around managing career searches, insights into balancing work and home lives, and access to executive coaching. “What they have done is to go back out to the market and recruit back the people that left a few years ago, maybe to start a family, and who were successful first time round,” explains Gallacher. More mature and experienced individuals are often easier to bring up to speed than their youthful counterparts. “We should be looking at establishing talent programmes in line with the lengthening of peoples’ careers,” she suggests. “Let’s look less at the ‘twenty-somethings’ as the high-potential talent because they have more freedom to experiment and are yet to fully develop who they are and what they want to do. Instead, businesses need to look at their talent programmes in terms of people in their late 30s and early 40s for the simple reason that these people are more settled and are ready to push on with their careers.”
Age and experience
The notion that talent programmes should be aimed at the more settled members of the professional community is yet to filter through: most start for people in their late 20s and early 30s. “The obvious problem with that is that it is going to have an impact on the number of women employed if they are having children,” says Gallacher. “It is a real problem for organisations if they are going to invest in talent when that talent may then go off on maternity leave.” This view may not sit well with the ‘politically correct’, but it is not endorsing what happens, just highlighting it as an issue that must be tackled. With the ‘shared parental leave’ concept coming on stream in 2015 in the UK, it looks like something is at last being done.
Shared parental leave may help tackle the reason why there are relatively fewer professional women than men in business, comments Gallacher. “Around 40% of the women we coach are high-earners. If they take maternity leave it has a huge impact on the family if they can’t get back into their careers quickly enough to plug the income gap.” If more men are able to request ‘enhanced paternity leave’, enabling parental duties to be more easily shared, it may make it easier for women to find a suitably remunerated professional position at an earlier stage.
However, this could present an interesting alternative conundrum for businesses that adopt such an approach. It may be the established view that few men will take up such an offer, but as younger generations come up through the ranks and are keen to balance work and family life, companies should prepare for a shift in the levels of uptake and will have to consider the impact of and their approach to such programmes until one day it becomes the norm.
The power of networking
In the meantime, a professional woman looking to return to work after an extended period away should concentrate on networking as a prelude to kick-starting her career, says Gallacher. “If you are looking to re-enter the workplace you need to get good at using social media as a networking tool, she says. “LinkedIn is a good way forward; it is an effective way of mapping out the professional world.”
But professional returners need to start physically networking too. Attending conferences is a useful activity but Gallacher strongly urges people to see networking as “giving not just taking”. “You can’t be transactional about networking, you have to be subtle,” she says. Many go along assuming they have to come away with handfuls of business cards. That is ineffective. Good networking, she states, is about meeting someone that you have a real conversation with – that way they will remember you. “Never go in thinking that networking leads to meeting other people; it is about being genuinely interested in the people you talk to. That is what makes things happen.”