Women who return to work after career breaks might feel apprehensive about what’s in store, but they certainly aren’t lacking ambition.
That’s according to findings from our 2019 Ambition Report in partnership with AGSM which showed the majority of women returning to work after time away feel “more ambitious than ever before”.
Indeed, in a survey of more than 1800 women, almost half of respondents returning from a career break (46 per cent) said they were eager to further their leadership career, while 17 per cent reported wanting to change professional direction and 16 per cent cited the desire to start a business.
And yet, despite this lucrative opportunity for employers, the barriers obstructing and preventing women from returning to professional careers after a break, and the longer-term implications including gender diversity imbalances in leadership, remain. It’s something that AGSM recognises and is working hard to combat. Instead of focusing on ways to “fix women” the management school is looking at how they can help to fix the system.
For the second time, AGSM will launch its Career Comeback Program with 30 placements on offer to eligible Australians. This program is designed to support highly qualified people back into the Australian workforce after an extended career break.
Dr Michele Roberts, Academic Director at AGSM, believes the course is one of the first to approach leadership training holistically with an evidence-based approach. “It’s specifically designed to help people who have become isolated from the workforce, by building capability, confidence and connections” she explains.
There are specific program outcomes that will accelerate a career comeback, including increased confidence, a revitalised professional network, re-establishing a career ‘identity’ and executive presence, and identifying and addressing technical skills gaps that may have developed during time out from a professional career.
“The way we look at it, the program is getting women ready,” Roberts says. “We address mindset, because mindset and confidence are significant issues for women who’ve been away from the workforce. And then we talk about narrative, how to use your authentic voice as well as connection, influence and power.”
Addressing self-esteem barriers is central to AGSM’s program, after findings from the 2017 Ambition Report showed that 51 percent of women felt confidence prohibited them from getting ahead in their careers.
“We have a view that rather than telling women that they shouldn’t feel lack of confidence, we try to normalise these feelings,” says Roberts. “Most high achieving people feel apprehensive and under-confident about some of the challenges they take on. We tell leaders that it’s okay to feel that way – acknowledge those feelings for what they are – that you care passionately about this work and these colleagues – then jump in and do it anyway. This is something that leaders can help with, by acknowledging the times when they feel daunted and unprepared for the challenges ahead and how we pushed through them. We can’t change feelings of apprehension, nor do we need to. It’s fine to feel afraid of a challenge and we need to acknowledge this.”
The wider goal for AGSM in running a program like this, is to try to even up the playing field between working mums and dads—particularly given three in five employed women with a child under five works part time in Australia, compared with less than one in ten fathers. Not only that, but as Roberts notes: “women often report struggling to find meaningful work that is part-time or flexible.”
Employers need to work harder to support women returning to work and assist them in seamlessly securing opportunities that suit their skillsets and aspirations. AGSM hopes its leadership in this arena will serve as the impetus for more employers to follow suit and take action against the considerable setbacks that women face.
As someone with a rich and diverse background in leadership, Roberts also emphasises the importance of finding career sponsors and people in your network who will champion your knowledge and expertise and encourage your pursuits. A cornerstone of this year’s program is to build out continuing mentorship pathways and opportunities to network with alumni and academics.
“We know that encouragement plays a huge role in confidence. Being chosen for an AGSM Career Comeback Scholarship says to these women – ‘we see you and we believe in you’. That’s huge because we all need a champion. We’re working to champion women who feel disconnected from the workforce because they’ve been looking after others. For all those talented women standing outside looking in the glass and wondering how they can ever get in, we are holding the door open for them.”
The bespoke program is designed to get highly qualified people back into the industry after taking leave. It consists of enrolment in an intensive three-day course in Sydney, up to three nights paid accommodation for interstate sponsorship recipients; child care reimbursements of up to $60 per day for the program’s duration; access to an online professional network of peers and business professionals; access to AGSM content and access to tailored career consultations and resources through AGSM’s Career Development Centre.
The Career Comeback program is also in line with AGSM’s long-standing, leadership diversity focus, Roberts says.
“Two years ago, we were at 36% women in our Full-Time MBA program and we were running special outreach programs. We realised this wasn’t working and that we actually needed to fix the system,” she explains.
In the 2020 cohort, AGSM has achieved gender-balance with 50% women in the full-time MBA cohort.
“We achieved this by creating a large number of scholarships just for women, because we know that finance is the biggest obstacle to women studying. We also sought out brilliant women – the best people for the job aren’t always the ones with their hands in the air and we had to seek out brilliant women. By doing that, we went from 36 percent women to 50 percent women in one year.
“We showed that when you address the problems in the system and stop wasting time trying to address perceived problems with the women, then you can really achieve a huge amount.”
Applications are now open for the AGSM 2019 Career Comeback Sponsorships. You can apply here