Banishing the ‘motherhood penalty’: How to make a successful career comeback - Women's Agenda

Banishing the ‘motherhood penalty’: How to make a successful career comeback

To close the gender gap at work, we need to seriously improve the opportunities available to women who return from taking a career break to have children.

That’s according to Professor Julie Cogin, Director of the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM) and Deputy Dean of UNSW Business School, and someone who personally saw her career transformed when she had children in the 1990s. She was able to pursue a flexible consulting career while they were young, after a former employer had supported her through her postgraduate studies.

Julie’s passionate about the role education can play in a ‘career comeback’ for parents who take a break. To help, the AGSM is now offering 10 sponsorships to mums and dads who’re looking for a professional pathway to get an edge on returning to the workforce following a career break – as well as a professional network and personal empowerment.

Julie’s particularly concerned about the workforce participation gap between mothers and fathers of young children, with 60 percent of women with children under the age of five working part-time, compared with 10 percent of men with children the  same age. Women aged 25 – 44 are more than two and a half times as likely as their male counter parts to be out of the labour workforce.

Such gaps continue to follow women  throughout their careers, on top of the ‘motherhood penalty’ which sees women’s wages fall by 4% for every child they have, compared with the eight per cent average wage increase men experience when they become fathers.

“The financial impact of a career break is often significant, impacting future employment, wages, superannuation contributions and financial security,” says Julie.

Despite this, and the bias that still unfortunately faces many women looking to return to the workforce, Julie notes there are plenty of supporting organisations and programs that aim to help.

“When planning a re-entry I would target organisations that have a proven commitment to women, especially those that have programs in place to attract and retain women as well activities to accelerate women’s careers. Take a look at the composition of the executive team and board, if relevant as this provides some evidence of commitment. Some companies may even be recognised as an employer of choice for women. Indeed, Julie’s own research in the area has found that the key attributes affecting the take-up and positive outcomes of family-friendly work practices often stem from the collective characteristics of a firm’s senior leadership team. So it pays to get familiar with the values such teams actually support.

Below, Julie shares advice on what women can do to prepare for their own career comeback.

Get clarity. The first step is to consider your ambitions and exactly what you want to do – the jobs you want, and your plan for getting it. While some women may lack some confidence at this point, especially if they’ve taken a number of years out of the workforce, Julie says the best path forward is to uncover your goals and needs first and to avoid being indecisive on your career aspirations when applying for roles.

Do a skills audit. Once you’ve got clarity on your next move, take a look at the skills you’ll need. Consider the skills you had before taking a career break, as well as the skills you’ve gained since becoming a parent. Now consider what skills are necessary for the roles you’re looking to access. Are their gaps in your knowledge base? Have you invested in developing skills that will help you in the workforce? Do you need a knowledge refresh, or to top up on the existing skills that you have? Consider again the role your network can play, particularly in getting advice from mentors or coaches.

Address the gaps. This is the action phase of your career comeback, and it’s where you explore options for addressing any gaps in your skills set. This may involve short courses, attending conferences and seminars, or again working to expand  your network. From there, address your resume and start applying for the positions you’re interested in.

Don’t assume people are making assumptions. While some unconscious bias still affects parents who’re returning to the workforce, don’t assume employers are making assumptions about you. Don’t assume that a flexible position isn’t available, even in a senior leadership position. Don’t assume a potential employer is wondering how you’re going to manage a new workload with kids at home. And don’t assume, especially if you’ve taken a long break, that your profession or industry has advanced beyond your ability to catch up.

Build your network. Draw on your network for ideas, advice and even to put in a good word with their own contacts. Julie suggests finding parents who’re in a similar situation – like-minded individuals who can appreciate the life change you’ve recently had, and can offer support on making the move back in the workforce. Bring mentors and/or coaches into your network.

Women’s Agenda has partnered with AGSM on promoting their call out to parents on a career break to apply for one of ten AGSM Career Comeback Sponsorships on offer. These sponsorships cover a number of short courses with the university, as well as some travel and childcare expenses.

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