Mind The Gap: Restarting A Career After Kids

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Aug 17, 2015

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Every day, as passengers clamber in and out of London’s underground, a disembodied electronic voice utters “Mind the gap.” For most, it’s still a simple warning to be cautious. But for the millions of women all over the world on the verge of returning to their careers after years of domesticity, the words may touch a more resonant chord.

Re-entering the workforce after a long gap is difficult for anyone. Unfortunately, many women who take time off for family never make the leap back in—some by choice, but many not by choice. Those who do often lack the skills to relaunch careers successfully. The implications for the fields of politics, business and science are particularly stark.

“A meagre 4 percent of the Fortune 500 CEO’s are women,” writes Sheryl Sandberg in her now-famous book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will To Lead. “In India, women hold about 5 percent of directorships among the 100 companies listed on the Bombay Stock Exchange. Eleven percent of the top 240 companies had female Indian CEOs.”

There is no clear-cut way of finding your place in the workforce again. But there are some key steps you can take to boost your chances, highlight your abilities and make the adjustment smoother.

ACKNOWLEDGE ANY SHIFT IN PRIORITIES

Priya, 36, a software engineer in Chennai took a three-year break from her career after giving birth. When she returned, she said, she was more nervous and jittery than she had been at the start of her career. She was also disturbed by subtle changes in her performance.

“My lack of concentration was a big concern,” Priya says, explaining how simple worries about home interrupted her focus at the office. “And I found that while I could easily handle the workplace stress earlier, I struggled to do so now.”

It wasn’t until Priya moved to another company that had less-demanding deadlines that she finally found she could embrace her work again.

“I realized I didn’t want to be chained to a desk all the time, something I didn’t mind in my twenties,” she said.

EVALUATE YOUR INTERESTS

For some, this stage is an opportunity to re-invent themselves completely. Knowing your interests before you apply can help you articulate your passion and transferable skills more clearly, giving you an edge in interviews. But changing careers mid-life often comes with unique personal and professional challenges.

No one really discusses the insecurity and the indecision that can dog the days after resuming work, particularly in a new field, but these are emotions many women face, says V. Kamala Kannan, head of HiSuccess, a career-counselling service. Working at a job or in a field you love can help mitigate these feelings while you find your feet.

“Even if you’ve always thrived in a high-powered, stressful career, a little introspection can help you decide if it’s still what you want,” says Kannan. “It’s not unusual for our needs to change in the different phases in our lives.”

KNOW WHAT YOU WANT FROM YOUR EMPLOYER

First jobs are usually taken in a burst of excitement about a salary, or a company’s prestige. But by the time of re-entry, most of us have realized there is much more to consider. Think about what you need from your workplace beyond the basics and articulate them to any potential employer.

Gayatri Krishnamoorthy Ram, 30, head of inbound marketing at Exotel in Bangalore, says she had a long list of conditions before she joined work after a two-year break. With a 15-month-old son at home, for Gayatri, a flexible work schedule was at the top of it.

“It was fortunate that my company has always been very accommodating,” she says. “When my baby was sick and my doctor felt that daycare was making him vulnerable to infection, they allowed me to take a two-month break to care for him.”

Even today, she says, she’s not expected to stick to a rigid 9-5 schedule because she was upfront about her needs from the start.

FOCUS ON SKILLS ACQUIRED, NOT TIME OFF

An updated CV is the best asset you can have when you’re trying to get back into the rat race. And just because you took time off doesn’t mean you stopped learning. Add any diploma, short-term course, or temporary project you may have taken on, even if it doesn’t relate to a job’s required skills. At the very least, it will be evidence of those oh-so-difficult-to-describe soft skills, like self-motivation and drive.

“Don’t be afraid to infuse your CV with your personality,” says Kannan. He suggests making it personal by highlighting likes and dislikes, current and past achievements, and your vision for the future. Ensure that whatever you are passionate about is evident.

“Don’t ever feel apologetic about taking time off,” says Kannan. “Most companies understand and appreciate the fact that women can have a meaningful career, even after a break.”

BUILD A STRONG SUPPORT SYSTEM

Building a strong support system can empower you both professionally and personally. On the career side, use technology and social media to leverage your skills and begin to establish a professional network months before you take the professional plunge. This could be by creating and sharing a personal website, updating a LinkedIn page, or connecting with professional groups online.

At the same time, a support system at home is important for balance. Don’t be afraid to reach out to caring parents and in-laws, a supportive spouse, friends and household staff to ask for help.

TIME IT RIGHT

Timing your comeback appropriately can often mean the difference between success and failure—or at least the difference between stress at work and stress everywhere. If finances aren’t an issue, don’t let anyone pressure you to go back to work before you’re completely ready emotionally and physically, says Vidhya Vivekananda, 37, a teacher in Madurai. Vidhya took three years off to spend with her son, whom she conceived just months after she first started her job.

“While I enjoyed teaching, I loved the time I spent at home too,” she says. “But after the age of 5, children don’t really need you around the clock. … I’m sure I would’ve been tempted to be a couch potato had I stayed at home any longer. For me, it was just the right hiatus.”

What works for one person and family, may not work for you and yours. Even when you have a plan, things may go awry—just take it in your stride.

“At any stage, resuming work is like experimenting with personal growth,” says Gayatri. “It’s great to have a good game plan, but just be ready with Plan B and C too, just in case.”

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Written By Kamala Thiagarajan

Kamala Thiagarajan is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the International New York Times, The Reader’s Digest (Indian edition), National Geographic Traveller, American Health & Fitness, Firstpost.com and more. She has written articles on the subjects of health, fitness, gender issues, travel and lifestyle for a global audience and has been published in newspapers and magazines in over ten countries. Visit her virtual home at kamala-thiagarajan.com or follow her @Kamal_t

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