Standing in front of 20 career returners at our recent workshop I asked the question, “Think back to the role you did pre-career break; hands up if you think you would do the job better today.” There is a slight pause, then a room full of hands go up.
When you no longer have a work-title you are forced to confront a new identity and through this comes growth, adaptability and continuous learning. So why are returners so often overlooked or forced to start again?
I have grappled with this question for a while and believe the answer lies in the many unsubstantiated assumptions about returners. “You’ve had six years out, that’s a big gap and so much has changed”, implying a returner is outdated, needs extensive training and may struggle with new work methods. This is a knee jerk judgement and assumes that in the absence of a ‘paid role’ there is no understanding or exposure to change.
Here is my reality. During my career break I used Slack throughout my study, Zoom to run meetings in volunteer roles, Excel, PowerPoint and Word continuously and communicated and transacted through multiple social and digital platforms. When I returned to ‘paid work’, I was up to speed quickly on the latest CRM software and genuinely excited about the introduction of automation tools to replace mundane manual tasks.
It is no secret that unpaid roles are undervalued by society, however, they seem to also be ignored as a unique skill set. “We are looking for candidates with more recent professional experience”. This implies that new skills gained from unpaid roles are not valuable. What’s the difference between managing a team of volunteers versus a marketing team, or, having the title ‘Events and Marketing Lead’ as opposed to running a community event that raises thousands of dollars.
I have done both and can guarantee that the skills required are transferable. The key difference is that the volunteer role requires enterprise skills to flourish in the absence of an org-chart and budgets. I have developed my innovation, collaboration and problem-solving skills to navigate new paths, and adapted quickly because there is no safety net.
Many women returners will take on part time or consultancy work during their break These roles may be close to home, flexible in nature and without big titles or company names. Unfortunately, this does not always play out well for the returner. In a past job interview I made reference to consulting work with a small craft distributor, explaining how I had increased my digital marketing experience across analytics, SEO and campaign creation. This was basically dismissed by the recruiter and I was asked for another example in a ‘bigger company’. The irony is that I continue to draw on the same digital marketing skills in my current role for a large organisation in the health sector, less so than the skills I gained pre-career break when I worked for the large multinational company.
Appointments are often made when the ‘best person for the role’ is found (aka merit). Merit is often thrown into the conversation like it’s a grenade and then people step back to see the results. Newsflash – merit is subjective. We hire people we like, who look like us, share the same values or have had similar career paths. This does not play well for returners as many of the people making hiring decisions have not lived this journey. If we are actually hiring the best person for the role, we would be less focused on the last title, and instead, hiring on potential; this has proven to be a far greater predictor of a successful candidate.
The sweet spot for rising senior managers seems to be in the 35-to-44-age bracket however, this is the age where most career breaks will occur. How are we adapting to facilitate re-entry and get the rising stars back in the system? Today we are currently losing them from the talent pool at a much quicker rate than being gained.
We need to look more broadly at how we identify and define talent, acknowledging all of the paid and unpaid life experiences that result in high potential candidates. Imagine the talent that could be found if the assumptions about career returners were removed.
Michelle is running an event in Melbourne on 12th the November, aiming to answer the question, Where are all the women?
It will feature Erika Trethaway from ANZ discussing their successful re-entry program, along with Shirley Ferrier, the CIO of Computershare, discussing her return to the workforce after a 4 year break.