The spirit of reinvention: getting back to work after a break

Flexible Working


Women seeking to return after career breaks are not happy at the assumptions made about them and are frustrated about their wasted skills and thwarted attempts to return, according to a new book.

She’s Back: your guide to returning to work, written by Lisa Unwin and Deb Khan, also finds that the main reason women want to return – and 85% of the 2,000 women who had taken career breaks who they interviewed did want to return – is to find challenging, fulfilling work.

The book’s authors know what they are talking about. Lisa, who has a corporate background having worked for Deloitte, has experience of taking several years out of her career and trying to get back in. Deb has run her own business in the creative industries for many years, has years of experience in leadership development and “knows a fair bit about non-linear career paths”.

The book was driven by a desire for hard data on why women drop out, what they do, why they return and what helps.

It starts with a “Manifesto for women” which states that it is vital to recognised that women’s career trajectories are often different from men’s and tend to ebb and flow due to the caring roles they are still most likely to hold. It also recognises that women are not perfect, that everyone has made mistakes and compromises and has flaws.

It says “lives are complex and messy” and work should recognise that careers may “twist and turn”.

A game of chess

The book has lots of advice for women. It suggests, for instance, that they view their career like a game of chess and act like a chess master, ensuring that they get the sponsors and mentors they need. One woman quoted in the book says: “I think we need to normalise the idea that women have different options at different times in their lives. Whether you stay at home for the early years or play the long game, or a bit of both – it shouldn’t be so binary.”

The book acknowledges that there are a lot of success stories in the media, but says that the reality is that many women struggle. The authors state: “The final straw was an article headed ‘Multinational Director reveals why motherhood NEVER held her back’. Here’s our (all too real) alternative version. ‘Woman next door reveals why motherhood RUINED her career’…While we applaud and celebrate those who make it work, and organisations who are trying very hard to change things, let’s not ignore what is still the reality for thousands of women with children and careers.”

The book calls for a change in attitudes towards flexible working, an end to tickbox diversity and a focus on ‘fixing’ women, a recognition of the value of part-time women and the fact returners are an investment rather than a liability and that their difference is their strength.

Most of the women interviewed for the book left their careers due to a conflict between having a career and being a parent and viewed this as a waste of their skills. Their biggest barrier to returning to work was a lack of flexible options, but management attitudes were important too. The vast majority say they need trust and a manager who wants them to succeed in order to return.

How to get back to work

Most women who had returned did so via word of mouth and contacts. Most had sacrificed responsibility for flexibility. Many who worked flexibly had gone for full-time jobs and negotiated flexibility.

The book has advice for women looking to return on what they should seek out in a prospective employer. There is practical information and support on how to prepare a return to work, how to use social media, how to write a cv, what to say at interviews, how to tap alumni networks, how to get a mentor, whether a career coach might help and how to set realistic targets.

The big question is, of course, how to present a career break as a positive. The book suggests various options from talking about how they have broadened their skills, knowledge and experience to how they have gained new perspectives.

The book is about transitions and starting again, about resourcefulness, creativity and making a strong business case – something an increasing number of people will have to do in an uncertain working future. No wonder columnist Matthew d’Ancona says: “This is an important book about an issue that could scarcely be more contemporary. The spirit of She’s Back is the spirit of the age. Read, or be left behind.”

*She’s Back is published by Urbane Publications, price £9.99.

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