For women, returning to work after a long absence—usually motherhood—has always been challenging. Gaps in employment as well as bias and outright discrimination keep moms from being taken seriously by employers. And the need for flexible schedules among parents isn’t always prioritized like it should be.
This will likely remain true after the coronavirus pandemic, when the millions of women who’ve dropped out of the workforce to take care of kids or family members at home attempt to find paid work again. Successful reentry requires understanding among employers, which can be an uphill battle in some cases, as well as strategic job searching and work and life integration for mothers. What’s a mom who wants to go back to work to do?
We talked to Dana Hundley and Jenna Richardson, cofounders of Career Cooperative, about ways moms can navigate their careers moving forward.
Millions of women have dropped out of the workforce during the pandemic. What are the biggest hurdles you see for women hoping to reenter the workforce at some point in the near future?
Schedule and capacity—and then perception externally of their schedule and capacity. This past year has seen women make incredibly difficult work and career decisions. Women have been forced to reevaluate (again and again) what actually makes sense for our schedules, overall capacity, and priorities when we are caretakers. As women look toward re-entering the workforce, they’ll continue to navigate evaluating capacity and boundary-setting, when it comes to scheduling.
My hope is that the past year has created substantial changes in the ways that organizations navigate their employees’ schedule and capacity; more realistic expectations of workload; and cultures that truly support the whole employee. While I see amazing examples of this, women will potentially face hurdles in reentering the workforce from organizations that may not have a culture of transparent communication and/or biases that certain employees can’t meet their schedule and capacity expectations. There is also the continued potential employer biases against taking time off, and continued lack of care/educational resources for parents.
What are some steps women can take to reassess their career or workplace needs, which might have changed, before attempting to return to work?
It is really important for women to make dedicated time and space (even if it is just 15 minutes over a cup of coffee) to truly check in with themselves. Dig into the question “What do you need and want?” and then do it again, and again—notice the patterns, what continues to come up for you? A big change we’ve seen in general, and I’ve seen in myself, is a realigning of timelines. We can be conditioned to think in long timelines, and plan ahead for major milestones or changes, and the circumstances of the pandemic took away some of that long-term planning ability. Thinking in shorter timelines, i.e. what makes sense for you, and your family/loved ones, right now can free you up from feeling like you are making huge, life-changing career decisions and instead focusing on what is the best situation for what you want and need right now. Using those parameters, you can take action accordingly.
Read more: 25+ Short-Term Goals to Strive for Right Now
Thinking in the short-term doesn’t mean that you don’t progress your career, it means that you take care of yourself and your needs in the moment so you can be in a good place to be nimble in your career to see and act on opportunities that both make sense for now and all the potential in the future.
I think we’ve all learned some really big lessons about what makes sense for us when it comes to work and balancing our time and energy. What are the conditions needed to actually work from home? What does true flexibility mean, and how can your organization and team best support one another? Reflect on the past year, what has worked and what hasn’t? And talk to your peers, friends, colleagues, fellow parents and caretakers who have been navigating similar experiences—what have they learned?
I count myself fortunate to be surrounded by a community of incredible women who are parents and caretakers and work, all doing so in unique ways. The main similarity between all of us, is that we parent, take care of loved ones, and define and engage in work in ways that make sense for us. There is no one right way to do this, there never will be—we have to continue to ask ourselves what we need and want in these moments, and for our families, and determine the best situations based on that.
Are there steps women should take at home to help their reentry?
Every family/team/partnership operates differently and has different needs and ways of being a unit. You have to figure out what works for you and your family/people. The best thing you can do is to talk openingly about it, a lot. Don’t make assumptions. Get on the same page and really dive into what you need, what your partner/family members/co-parent/co-caretaker needs, what resources are available to you (care options, government assistance, community groups, etc) and make a plan from there, with part of the plan being to keep checking in on the plan to make sure that it makes sense. Now is a great time to think creatively and try new things. What we need and want will always change. We’re human, we grow, huge personal changes happen, and this last year has taught us that world-altering changes can happen that can’t be anticipated. Open communication with our people will help us be nimble in navigating those changes when it comes to entering back into the workplace.
And give yourself grace. You aren't going to get it all right or have it all figured out straight off the blocks, (or ever really) but leave space to fumble, ask for support, and take care of yourself in the best way you can.
Read more: 20 Signs You’re Too Self-Critical at Work
What kinds of benefits, culture factors, etc. should moms returning to work consider when weighing whether to work for a prospective employer? Are there specific pandemic-related questions they can ask during the interview to find out whether an employer can meet their needs?
First, caretakers re-entering the workforce should define what benefits and company culture factors make the most sense for them. It’s not a one-size-fits-all package. Ask yourself what you want and need to be good at work. Define in tangible terms what environment you need to be successful and work and home. If work-life balance is important to you, take the time to imagine what work-life balance actually looks and feels like (Is it having autonomy to set your own hours, is it being able to completely disconnect from work outside of set hours, or is it something else?) to be able to thoughtfully assess if the roles/companies you are considering meet those needs.
At a glance, here are some benefits/cultural factors to think about:
What does work/life balance mean at the org?
What are the office policies/in the office expectations?
What is the broader benefits package and employee support? (Do orgs contribute to child care? Eldercare? Life Insurance? Future education?)
What are the tools and systems in place to help support employees, employee communications, and collaboration?
Here are some questions to ask to get the answers you need:
How did your organization respond to employee needs during the pandemic?
How did employee policies change due to the pandemic?
How did your organization communicate and collaborate during the pandemic? What was the biggest challenge? What did you learn? What is something that you learned/put into practice that you will continue post-pandemic?
How were caregivers impacted/supported over the last year?
Many moms might not be able to be selective about who they work for when returning to work. How can they meet their baseline needs now while also finding ways to focus on longer term career happiness?
Again, define those baseline needs to create the starting point and parameters in your job search. Think about work opportunities outside of the traditional full-time, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. role. Does a temporary or contract role make sense right now to fulfill basic needs while you look for a longer-term role? Are there short-term, project-based ‘gig’ roles that make sense right now? Oftentimes when you can solve your short-term need (for income as an example), you can create the space needed for a longer-term, more selective job search.
If your baseline needs are being met in a role, look for additional opportunities in your current role and/or what work situation you are in. Are there opportunities to learn something new, build your skills, or work with different people/audiences/industries? How can my current situation help me to get to the next step in my career?
Regardless of your work situation, continue to be curious to seek out those experiences and opportunities to continue to grow your career. Career growth isn’t just defined by a title change or salary bump. Career growth comes with new experiences, challenges, and new perspectives. Some of the most interesting career paths aren’t linear. They are full of twists and turns that lead to great learning opportunities and multi-dimensional skills. Regardless of how topsy-turvy your career can seem, every experience is part of your unique story, and you learn and gain something from each one of them (even if it’s learning what you don’t want).
Community continues to be one of the most powerful resources in career development and fulfillment—even if you have to take a position that may not align with your long-term goals, you are building your community and directly contributing to this ever-important tool, support system, and resource.