Young woman returning to work, sitting at a desk in front of a laptop holding a pencil.
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A practical guide for women returning to work

28 Jun 2018

Part of the gender gap problem is ensuring that women are able to return to work after they have children. So, what can be done?

There are numerous reasons someone might need to take a career break. However, it’s safe to say that the biggest demographic facing challenges with returning to work after a long period of time is women – especially after they have children.

In fact, recent figures show the frightening nose-dive that women’s earnings take after a certain point and – spoiler alert! – it occurs straight after the birth of a woman’s first child, while new fathers’ wages remain largely unaffected.

All of this information shows that it’s important for companies to make it easier for women to rejoin the workforce. In fact, it’s in their best interests, as bringing talented, capable women back into the workforce will help to reduce the talent shortage.

But, even with returnships and other such programmes, it’s still not easy for women who are thinking about returning to work.

For those who have pressed pause on their career in order to look after their children or tend to other necessary things, you can often wonder what to do next – especially when you know that your current situation is only temporary and you have plenty more years to give to your career.

That’s how She’s Back came about, an organisation dedicated to helping women who are returning to work. The company was set up by Lisa Unwin and Deb Khan, after Unwin went on a career break when she had young children, taking eight years out.

“I realised there were hundreds, if not thousands, of women like me, from sectors as far apart as law and advertising, who had stepped back from successful careers, perhaps in their late thirties, and who probably a few years later were ready to return,” she said.

“I knew from personal experience how daunting that felt. I also felt passionately that these women have fabulous talent and experience. I decided to set up She’s Back to do something about it.”

Unwin and Khan have now published She’s Back: Your Guide to Returning to Work. Rather than long-winded discussions around why returning to work is so tough, and vague advice about believing in yourself (although that confidence and self-belief is an important element), the guide provides practical advice, statistics and personal stories that will give women the tools they need to return to work with confidence.

Play the long game

The book talks about the importance of thinking like a chessmaster, playing the long game and thinking ahead strategically, not just thinking about the here and now.

“Be aware that having young children is a ‘temporary condition’. Have a hold on your ambition and make sure you are positioned for success in the long term,” said Unwin.

“If you have to make some short-term sacrifices, such as going part-time or passing up a promotion opportunity, make some other moves that will position you for the future, such as investing in your network.”

Don’t start with limitations

When returning to work, you should still treat going for jobs as a sales pitch of yourself, the same way you did before. With this in mind, don’t start by talking about what you can’t do.

“So many women start with: ‘I can only work three days.’ Begin instead with you, what you have to offer, what your value is,” said Unwin.

The importance of networking

She’s Back also discusses the importance of maintaining and building your network. While it might have once been thought of as a boys’ club full of schmoozing and swapping business cards, networking has evolved into a community that can prove vital to everyone – not just those returning to work.

“Our research showed that you are five times more likely to find work after a break through your network than through a recruitment agency,” said Unwin. “Women hate the term ‘networking’ but they’re actually really good at it. They chat, support each other, connect.”

Once again, rather than simply talking about how important networking is and encouraging women to ‘get out and do it’, the book offers personal stories and examples, with practical tips for how to network in real life.

Companies still play a role

While Unwin and Khan’s book offers important advice to women who are returning to work, it is still extremely important that companies are looking at their culture and internal policies that might prevent women from wanting to come to them after a career break.

Unwin said if she walked into any company tomorrow and wanted to solve their gender gap problem, the first thing she would look at is data. She would want to know when and where do most women leave, what the retention rates after maternity leave are and what the levels of representation of women at different levels are.

We would also want to look at what’s happening around flexible working – not the policies, but the reality,” she said. “We’re not talking simply about the ‘when and where’ but also ‘how much’.

“The third thing I’d observe is who are the role models, particularly for women. One of the reasons we know women leave is when they can’t see anyone above them – man or woman – managing work and life in a way that they aspire to do.”

Communication is key

A recent study from Dublin City University showed that how employers behave and the practices they put in place for employees post-maternity leave is crucial when it comes to retaining top female talent.

Unsurprisingly, the study found that when maternity leave was viewed as a major disruption, negative experiences were more common.

Unwin said that it’s not always a matter of organisations actively doing the wrong thing, so much as there is a lack of training and communication in this area. “We often hear that line managers assume they are ‘not allowed’ to talk about the pregnancy or return to work, and that means communication lines are shut down,” she said.

“The most important thing is to make sure there’s plenty of communication at each stage. Everyone is different, so you can’t employ hard-and-fast rules.”

Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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