The decision to take a career break is a personal one, and there are many reasons why people choose to do so. It’s often to raise children or care for elderly family members. Others may take a break to pursue education or personal interests. However, despite the many valid reasons why someone might take a break from their career, re-entering the workforce can be a daunting prospect. For women in particular, the career break often comes with a significant penalty. This is a missed opportunity for employers.
When I started my career, I didn’t consider the consequences that taking a career break would have on my upward trajectory. I graduated with an MBA from a top business school in the U.S. with less than 10% of the class being women. My first job in financial services was at a bank, and I went on to hold various positions in relationship management and risk management. Before I took a break to care for my children, I was a senior banker at a Dutch financial services company, reporting directly to the managing board.
I found my break worthwhile; my husband has a very travel-intensive job, and my children needed someone at home. During this time, I became involved in my local community and fulfilled several roles, including elected positions, organising large-scale events and serving on the board of local organisations. But I was eager to get back into work when the time was right.
The social stigma of career breaks
The COVID-19 pandemic saw millions of women leave the workplace and, despite the rise of remote working, only worsened gender inequality within businesses across all sectors.
LinkedIn’s report in March 2022 found 60% of people believed that, despite the pandemic, there was still a stigma involving career breaks. This social stigma has a negative impact on employees as well as businesses. Seven in 10 women acknowledge that their career break has made them less confident, which has directly resulted in 67% of women feeling afraid to negotiate pay because of diminished self-assurance.
When I started applying for jobs after my career break, I found it hard to get past the second interview stage. I had good feedback and enthusiastic responses, but never a solid offer. It was disheartening to have strong interviews with companies who champion diversity and equal opportunities on paper, but ultimately, they couldn’t commit to a final step.
Despite this, I felt buoyed by my experience and network. In financial services, our product offering doesn’t always vary significantly from that of our competitors—people make the difference. I had kept in contact with several of my former colleagues, and therefore was informed on developments. I also knew the two changes to expect in this sector: technology and regulation. I didn’t feel like I should be at a disadvantage, I just needed a chance.
Only 24% of women go back to their previous employer after a career break. That adds up to a large number of professionals who have the skills and expertise to be beneficial to another company. So, how can we encourage, support and invest in people who take career breaks?
Flexibility, equity and empathy
When I was struggling to re-enter the job market, I always tried to find a positive lesson, experience or message that I could use to motivate myself. One of my former colleagues encouraged me to apply for a position with IQ-EQ. I was hesitant at first but decided to give it a go. Although I wasn’t successful for that position, IQ-EQ gave me the chance I needed and hired me for another role. Two years later, I’ve flourished, first managing a team of my own and now moving back into relationship management.
All I needed was support.
To ensure we aren’t missing out on the skills and talent of those who’ve taken career breaks, we need to make returning to the workplace more accessible. Mentorship programmes and ‘return to work’ schemes are a great way of easing people back into work, and with 70% saying it’s difficult to re-enter work after temporarily leaving their career, it’s clearly needed.
Learning initiatives can also have a positive impact on employee retention and encourage gender equality. When I started at IQ-EQ, I received support from both HR and management, who encouraged me to invest in my own learning and development. IQ-EQ has programmes such as Basecamp, which helps new line managers, and Elevate, which supports and nurtures aspiring female leaders. These types of programmes challenge you while helping you see value in yourself and what you do.
Returning to work can be daunting and no matter the support that is given, it should be flexible and empathetic. Everyone has a different circumstance or background, and most of the time all they need is understanding and encouragement. To this end, I’m proud to be a mentor in addition to my role as a client relationship director. I hope to give back the support that was given to me in re-establishing my career.
If you’re returning to work after a career break, or would like to switch careers, IQ-EQ might have a role suitable for you. Interested? Check out our careers page, or view our current opportunities.