According to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center, in August and September of 2020, more than 800,000 women dropped out of the workforce because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The reason? Women with children or other caregiving responsibilities have placed—or been forced to—put their careers on the backburner, perhaps by a few years, in order to pick up pressing household responsibilities.
You might be one of those women and thinking about your eventual return to work. Or you might be reentering the workforce after exiting for another reason, such as health or a leave of absence. Either way, if you have left the workforce by choice or circumstance, that leaves a gap on your resume—an understandable one, but a gap nonetheless. If and when you return to work, you’ll need to figure out how to talk about it. We asked two career coaches to weigh in the best ways to talk about your career gaps on your job applications and during interviews.
How to explain your employment gap
Lauree Ostrofsky learned the power of storytelling firsthand when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor at the age of 28. Her diagnosis resulted in a multi-month leave of absence. Thankfully, Ostrofsky, a self-proclaimed hugger who helps women leap into more meaningful careers and businesses, is fine now. “How we tell our stories directly impacts the paths that lay themselves out in front of us,” she says. “If we’re telling stories of struggle and lack, we’re going to see and experience more of them. If we talk about potential and opportunity, we’re going to see more of those.”
When preparing for a job interview, Ostrofsky recommends you ask yourself questions that will help shape your story to your intentions for the conversation.
Ideally, what do I want to have happen in this interview? What’s my goal?
How do I ideally want this interviewee to feel about me / my qualifications?
How does what happened (the gap) speak to these interview goals?
“If you want them to see you as an effective leader, how does your time away serve as proof that you are a good leader?,” Ostrofsky says. “Maybe you ensured the team was efficient before leaving so everything would be seamless for the remaining staff. Maybe once home you managed your household (including caring for aging parents or a new addition to the family) using your project management skills and can illustrate how you’ll use them in this new organization now. For example, I took time to help my family, and the abilities I perfected in time management and budget analysis are the same ones your team needs now as it grows this new department.”
If you took time off after leaving a previous employer, avoid explaining that away, Ostrofsky says. Instead, focus on how that time and your experiences could serve the needs of the organization you’re considering. For example: “It’s good to know how important writing and being a team player are because those are the exact proficiencies I developed after amicably leaving my former employer.”
Whether you are laid off or on maternity leave, talking about career gaps you likely can use similar strategies. Robin Moseley-Vaughn, a career coach and diversity advocate, says, “No matter the gap, you have to provide a general context of what happened, but you also don’t want to ramble and give deeply personal information.”
I took six months off (or any length of time) for maternity leave, and I’m excited to start working again. I bring XYZ skills to this position.
I was recently laid off from my employer due to budget cuts related to COVID-19. I’m ready to get back to work, and since then, I’ve done X (which could be a course or a project specific to your professional development).
I needed to take time off for a health issue, and now that it is resolved, I am ready to get to work. I’ve had years of experience doing X…
Your personal situation could vary. The key, according to Mosley-Vaughn, is to, “pivot to what you’ve been able to do during that time or what you bring to the position from previous experience.” As it relates to your resume, Mosley-Vaughn’s advice is to create a career gap section outlining the ways in which you are keeping up with your industry.
A person’s career is rarely linear. Career gaps and breaks in professional experience should be normalized and not feared, especially in interviews. Use whatever situation or circumstance you have as an opportunity to communicate and tell your story. When interviewing, remember to frame your situation by adding context, highlighting your skills, and showing a keen aptitude in how you develop professionally.
About our sources
Lauree Ostrofsky is the founder of business-coaching enterprise Simply Leap, which focuses on guiding women business owners to take the leap into more meaningful careers and lives. She’s published two books, including Simply Leap, a happy how-to that provides instructions on living your best life despite doubts and fears, and founded the online group Hudson Valley Women in Business, which assists women beyond the services Simply Leap can provide.
Robin Moseley-Vaughn is an experienced career coach and communications specialist passionate about supporting clients making the next steps in their career with a focus on diversity and inclusion. She is a DePaul University and University of Illinois graduate specialized in writing, editing, proofing, fact-checking, qualitative research (methods and analysis), and resume writing.