Career break women: don’t write yourself off!

This week I listened to Allison Pearson speak at a Working Families event about
the challenges of the Sandwich Generation – juggling work, elderly parents and
teenage children. As I laughed at her anecdotes, it rang a few too many bells as I’m currently recovering
from my daughter’s 18th birthday house party and making plans to support my
parents during my mother’s imminent hip operation  … while fitting in
the day job of course! 

Allison also talked about her frustration that so many women she knows – all amazingly talented – have given up hope of getting
their careers back after taking many years out of the workforce to bring up their
children. This I can also relate to; I regularly meet talented and experienced women on career
breaks who have similarly written themselves off. 

Typical is Jackie, who
stepped back from a high-flying 18-year career when jetting around the world
for client pitches became impossible with three young children. She told me
apologetically: “I’ve mainly been just a mum for years now, doing bits of
consultancy for small businesses, nothing exciting.” Approaching her
fifties, with teenage children, she was sceptical of her chances of restarting
her career: “I’d love to have a great job again but it’s been too long.
Who would want me now? Media is a young person’s world and I’m too old to start
again.”

I can remember my own doubts and insecurities after four years out. It is so
easy to give up when well-crafted job applications are ignored and recruiters
dismiss your chances. Keen to relaunch in your previous field, you can start
your job search with a burst of enthusiasm, but then rapidly become
disillusioned. 48-year-old Carmen, who had wanted to resume her career as a
City macro-economist, was told by a headhunter that she had “no chance on
earth of going back to the financial sector” after a seven year break. So
she wrote off this option, decided she’d have to start again at the bottom and
took a minimum wage internship with a charity.

At Women Returners we are fighting hard at a business level to tackle this waste of female talent,
by working with organisations to create more routes back into satisfying
corporate roles. But if we’re going to succeed in this objective, we also need
you to remove any limits you are placing on yourself – to value yourself and
what you can bring to the workforce:

1. Don’t minimise yourself. You’re not “just a mum”, you didn’t run
“just a small business from home” and your previous professional
success wasn’t down to luck.

2. Remember you are still the same talented professional woman you were and you
will quickly get back up to speed. You also have a wealth of new skills
developed during your break, combined with maturity and a fresh perspective.

3. Know that UK businesses want you back. Companies from Credit Suisse to
Thames Tideway Tunnel are launching returner programmes. I talk every week to
many companies who see returners as an untapped talent pool which can both fill
capability gaps and build diversity.

4. Be open-minded about new possibilities. If you don’t want to go back to your
old career, you are not too old to retrain into a new career or set up your own
business and, most importantly, all those years of experience will still count.

5. Don’t give up. We’re not claiming that getting back into a great job after
many years out is easy, but it is possible with determination and persistence,
as our many return-to-work success stories demonstrate.

Carmen didn’t give up and is now back working as an Executive Director in the
City through participating in Morgan Stanley’s returnship programme. And Jackie
is starting to explore other options as well as reconnecting with her
ex-colleagues who remember her as an amazing boss, not “just a mum”.
If you want to restart your career, remind yourself of Henry Ford’s words …

Posted by Julianne; Adapted from a Mumsnet Guest blog I
wrote in April.

Building Self-Efficacy – Believing that you can succeed!

The Problem with Confidence

It’s often reported that women’s self-confidence plummets during a career break. A recent study* found that women on maternity leave start to lose confidence in their ability to return to work only 11 months after giving birth.
The problem with labelling return-to-work doubts as a ‘confidence issue’ is that we use the same explanation for a wide range of setbacks that women face in the workplace: from presentation nerves to not putting ourselves forward for a promotion or (as Sheryl Sandberg would say) ‘not taking a seat at the table’. It’s become too much of a general catch-all.
I would suggest that we need a different term to describe the (often extreme) self-doubt that women can experience when they consider returning to the workplace after a long time out. This is the doubt that stops you even believing that it’s possible to get back into a satisfying role .. the doubt that made a highly talented MBA with 15 years’ experience say to me after her 6 year break “I’m a write-off – no-one will want to hire me now”. 
Self-Efficacy

From a psychology perspective, what you’re experiencing in this situation is better termed “low self-efficacy”. The psychologist Albert Bandura described self-efficacy as a person’s belief in their ability to succeed in a particular situation. If you have low self-efficacy about getting back to work, then you feel less motivated and behave in negative ways that make you less likely to achieve your goal; you see barriers as insurmountable blocks rather than challenges to overcome, you lose focus and interest more quickly, and you struggle to pick yourself up again when you hit an inevitable setback. 
Building Self-Efficacy

The encouraging thing about self-efficacy is that it’s not fixed – there are specific ways to boost it. Bandura identified four key sources of self-efficacy, three of which are within your control and the other you can influence:
1. Mastery. Performing a task successfully through hard work and effort improves self-efficacy. If you haven’t worked for many years, you will feel ‘rusty’. Create opportunities to do work-related tasks that feel daunting to you, but in a low risk environment, such as offering to chair a volunteers’ meeting or taking a training course which involves group & presentation work. 
2. Social Modelling. Seeing other people being successful raises our belief that we can do it too. We need role models! That’s why we’re collecting success stories of women who have successfully relaunched their careers. Read our stories & actively seek out women who have already gone down the road you want to take.
3. Social Persuasion. Getting encouragement from others helps us to overcome self-doubt. Spend more time with people who will encourage you and give you a boost, and less with the downbeat ‘energy vampires’ in your life! Remember that the people you are closest to may be discouraging about your return to work because they are worried about the impact it will have on their lives.
4. Psychological Responses. Better managing your stress levels and emotions can improve your confidence. Work out what helps you to feel calmer under stress – maybe having time to prepare, going for a run, or just taking a few deep breaths – and use these techniques consciously next time you’re under pressure. Think about taking a yoga or mindfulness course if you find it difficult to manage your stress levels and emotions. 
And you can use this framework to build your self-efficacy once you’re back at work too!

* AAT, 2013

Posted by Julianne

Tackling return-to-work fears and doubts: how to stop your brain getting in your way

Return-to-Work Fears & Doubts

We have supported a large number of women considering returning to work after a long break. Many of the same worries & doubts loom large:
What if … I can’t do what I did before? I try and fail? No-one wants to employ me with a big CV gap? I can’t find a good flexible job / affordable childcare? My brain’s gone to mush.
I’m just being selfish. I feel guilty about wanting to work …
However much we want to get back to work, these fears and doubts can stop us in our tracks. And we find ourselves in the same stuck place a year later wondering why we haven’t made any progress

Recognise your Negativity Bias & Inner Critic
We’re smart women – we’re used to thinking our way out of a difficult situation. But in this case your mind may be your biggest problem rather than your problem-solver. Understanding a bit about our mental make-up explains why.

1. We have a ‘negativity bias’. As the neuropsychologist Rick Hanson says,our minds are like Velcro for the negative & Teflon for the positive. Negative thoughts stick in our brains while the positive ones just roll off.

There is a reason for this. Our brains evolved to keep us safe in the time of woolly mammoths. They’re primed to scan the environment for danger and to shout out all the risks. Better err on the side of caution than be someone’s lunch.

So when you’re thinking about making a major change like going back to work after a long break & maybe changing career direction, your mind left to its own devices may well tell you DON’T DO IT! Your thoughts will naturally focus on all the reasons why not and all the downsides.

2. Alongside the negativity, your ‘inner critic’ fires up as the self-critical soundtrack inside your head judges you harshly …
I’m being selfish for wanting to work
My children will suffer if I leave them
I won’t be good-enough if I can’t give 100% 
The subtext of all of these – I’m a Bad Mother if I go back to work.

As we tend to believe our minds, we see these thoughts as facts and make our decisions as if they were the truth. So we stay put and don’t make a change. And we feel reassured for a while because the fears go away. But we’re still not happy and fulfilled …


Balance the negativity
The good news is that we can balance the negativity. Don’t try to get rid of your negative thoughts & Always Think Positive- you’ll be fighting a losing battle. Aim instead to create a more balanced view:
1. Listen to your negative thoughts and inner critical voices. Write them down to get them out of your head & weigh them up
2. Consider what evidence you have to support them and challenge yourself to find evidence against them
3. Tune down the negative ‘Radio doom & gloom’ in your head by not paying it so much attention
4. Create more helpful messages & tune these up by reminding yourself of them frequently
I’ve lost all my work skills => I still have my old skills, they just need sharpening up
   I’m being selfish => my family will benefit if I’m happier and have more energy for them
5. Remind yourself of your strengths and achievements. Write them down
6. For every job option you consider write down why it could work as well as why not

Reduce your fears by taking steps forward
Fears are normal in any change. You really do have to Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway! (a great book by the way). Stop over-thinking & start taking action. Get practical and emotional support: even strong women need help to change! Focus less on the speed of the change and more on keeping moving forward. And read the ‘routes back to work‘ posts on our blog for tips on the many actions you can take.

Related Posts
Do all working mothers have to feel guilty?
Do mothers need to Ban Selfish?
Are you your own worst enemy?
Stop thinking and start doing


Posted by Julianne

Shall I return to work or not? Ambivalence and transitions

Back to school and back to blogging… During the last few weeks of the summer holidays I’ve felt a real pull between wanting to enjoy the good weather and to spend relaxed time with my teenage children, and the desire to get my mind focused on work again. It reminded me of the conflicting feelings I experienced when I was moving back into work after my career break. I knew that I wanted to start a new career, but I was worried about the complications and possible stresses of being a working mother.

For many women returners, this uncertainty can keep us awake at 4am, inwardly debating pros and cons and never coming to a clear-cut conclusion. Because we feel ambivalent, we question whether it is the right decision. As one of my coaching clients asked me recently: “I keep having nagging worries about going back to work, so does that means it’s not the right thing to do?” 

Coping with ambivalence and transition

William Bridges, who has been researching life transitions since the 1970’s, reassures us that few changes are universally positive, “letting go [of our old life] is at best an ambiguous experience”. So just because you feel confused and unsettled, it doesn’t mean that you are making the wrong choice. Bridges explains that when we make a change in our lives we go through a transition period of psychological readjustment, when up-and-down emotions are completely natural. If we anticipate this unsettled period, we are less likely to retreat back to our comfort zone without even exploring the alternatives.

Be both rational and intuitive

If you’re stuck endlessly debating rational pros & cons of returning to work, it can help to use your more intuitive side. Imagine yourself at 70, looking back on yourself today. Is your 70 year old self sympathetic or impatient with your current indecisiveness? What advice would your future self give you? Would she encourage you to make a change and relaunch into the workplace now or to wait a while longer or maybe to make other changes to your life?

Has anyone felt 100% certain that going back to work was the right decision?

Posted by Julianne

Do all working mothers have to feel guilty?

“Since I returned to
work after my career break I feel guilty every day. Don’t all working mothers?”

Listening to this comment from a guest speaker at an event for
women returners and seeing the nods of agreement in the audience, I was not
surprised that many women decide not to go back to work even if they are feeling unfulfilled as full-time mothers. Who
wants to sign up to years of feeling guilty?

Do all working mothers feel guilty?

The premise that a heavy burden of guilt is the lot of the working mother seems to be fairly ingrained. Not a week goes by without some mention in the media. And we are just talking about working mothers here, no-one talks about ‘working father guilt’. Just recently …

“8 out of 10 working mums feel guilty” Justine Roberts reporting results of a Mumsnet poll at Workfest, Jun 2013
“I think all women feel guilty” Sheryl Sandberg, Woman’s Hour interview, Apr 2013
“Majority of mothers admit to feeling guilty for working” Daily Mail , Jan 2013
And it’s not just in the UK …
“Working mothers still plagued by guilt” Sydney Morning Herald, Apr 2013


I’m starting to feel guilty for not feeling guilty. As one of the 2 in 10 working mothers who don’t feel guilty, is there an implicit assumption that I don’t care enough about either my work or my family (or both)?

Psychological basis for guilt

It’s worth looking at guilt from a psychological perspective. What is the function of guilt?
“From a cognitive point of view, guilt is an emotion that people experience because they’re convinced they’ve caused harm. The emotion of guilt follows directly from the thought that you are responsible for someone else’s misfortune, whether or not this is the case.” Psychology Today

So guilt is not a consequence of caring. Healthy guilt is a sign that our conscience is working effectively and can be a useful emotion if it’s telling us that something needs changing. If guilt is a warning flag that our actions might be harming our children or our co-workers, then it’s served its purpose. But feeling guilty doesn’t make you guilty. Working can have a positive effect on family life (see previous post). Often guilt comes from judging ourselves by impossible standards (back to the Perfect Mother and Employee) or being influenced by the perceived judgements of others. In this case, it’s a destructive emotion that we are allowing to reduce our life satisfaction for no reason at all.

How to challenge guilt feelings when you are returning to work

Analyse the cause of your guilt feelings. Is the emotion telling you that you are making a decision that is inconsistent with your values? Do you rationally think that you are jeopardising your relationship with your family? If so, are you able to reduce your working hours, to shift your work pattern or to work from home some days? Do you need to think about a job or career change to get more flexibility?

If you consider your choices and the trade-offs you are making and do not want to make any changes (or are practically unable to do so), then recognise that guilt is serving no useful purpose and let go of it. Guilt is not a badge of pride for working mothers, just a rod we have created for our own backs.

Posted by Julianne

What about the gap in my CV?

Susan* a former accountancy firm partner who stopped working when her family relocated for her husband’s job, consulted me when preparing for her first job interview in 14 years.  She feared that she had been out of the workforce for too long to be of interest and we talked through the kinds of questions she might encounter.  A few days later, Susan emailed me ‘…. he did ask “why now?” and when I started with “I have been a stay at home mum for 14 years…”  he cut me off and said, “And I think that is wonderful!  My wife is a doctor and she made the same decision when our children came along and you can see it in the quality of our children”.   It was such an unexpected vote of support — not what we read will likely occur when interviewers see the CV gap — that I thought I should share it with you.  It might help others to realise that there are interviewers who understand the choices we have made because they share the same values.’
It is so easy to believe, looking at the world of employment from the outside, that we are the only person who has a significant gap in our CV.  We tend to focus on all the things that we haven’t done to build our career while we were not working: we forget about all the skills and experience we built up before our break and those we might have acquired since we left employment.  While some employers will still be most interested in what you did before your career break and might not even ask about the gap, recent research has shown that unpaid work can improve your employment prospects.  The study, (Wilkin, C., & Connelly, C. (2012). Do I Look Like Someone Who Cares? Recruiters’ Ratings of Applicants’ Paid and Volunteer Experience International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 20 (3), 308-318) concluded that voluntary work is valued by recruiters where it is relevant to the application and that even if it is less relevant, it can complement relevant paid experience by demonstrating altruism, co-operation and a work ethic.

Think about all the activities you’ve engaged in as part of your communitiy responsibilities or volunteering and consider how they have provided opportunities to refresh, enhance and add to your experience and skills.  These endeavours are equally as relevant to your CV as roles for which you were paid – and can adequately fill the apparent gap.  One client, researched, created and managed a home education programme for her severely disabled child, co-ordinating nine different professional advisers while on a break from marketing and selling technology.  Another contirbuted her previous media experience and her organisational skills to an election campaign.  I filled my gap by becoming a trustee of an international humanitarian aid charity and Treasurer of a school PTA.  Whether we get involved in local politics, a religious community or a charity role, we are doing something of value, for ourselves, the cause, and for any future employer.

Posted by Katerina

Am I being selfish by wanting to work?

For the last few years, I have been running workshops for women considering returning to work after a lengthy career break. As I listen to the voices around the table I hear the same worries & doubts drowning out the excitement and anticipation. Lack of confidence, guilt and other mental barriers can stop us even exploring ideas and options to see if they are practical. This emotionally-charged word selfish often pops up in the conversation & seems to strike a chord with many of the women in the room.
What makes us talk about going back to work as selfish?  The underlying fear here is that work will negatively impact the family: children, partner and/or elderly parents. It’s unsurprising that this seems to be such a common view. Working women tend to either be portrayed in the media as completely frazzled ‘jugglers’ or as superwomen with an army of helpers.
Most people instinctively believe that happy mothers are better mothers; if a woman isn’t feeling fulfilled at home, being a full-time parent may not be the best thing for her children either. The reassuring news from psychology research is that studies show that work & family don’t have to be in conflict. Satisfying work can have a ‘positive spillover’ effect on family life. This is supported by evidence that work can invigorate us, like healthy exercise. Provided we feel competent and satisfied at work, our positive mood and satisfaction can create a happier home life. Women in a recent study who were more energetic at home said it was because work gave them an energy boost.
I have talked to many women returners over the last few years and I have found that they’re often surprised and relieved by the positive effects of combining work and family.  Janet* a mother of four took on a new role after a seven year break:
“Having a purpose makes me happier, more energetic and more fulfilled. I now enjoy being with my children more and look forward to the holidays with them rather than slightly dreading it.”
Susan* a mother of two returned to her previous employer after a ten year break:
“I thought working was going to run me into the ground but I now have more energy for the family than as a full-time mother.  I feel back to being me. Life is busy but I’d rather be busy than bored.”
So next time you’re worrying about being selfish, try looking at things in a different way. It is possible for work and family to enhance each other: for you to be a happier person and for your family to benefit.
*Names and some details have been altered for confidentiality


Posted by Julianne