Lisa Unwin and Deb Khan are Co-Authors of ‘She’s Back’, a BS-free guide to get more women back in the workplace.
Calling out applicant tracking systems and recruitment processes, ‘She’s Back’ takes the refreshing view that the onus is not just on the job seeker to prove their worth – there are tangible barriers in the system that need to be overcome. Lisa talks to The Daily Slog about developing your interview pitch (never say “I used to”) and when to drop the ‘F’ word.
What are the main reasons for extended workplace leave of absence for women? Is it still largely due to family commitments?
Largely, yes but not exclusively. We surveyed over 1,300 women who were on a career break and for around 65% the main reason was a lack of ability to combine career and family. There are other reasons though. Some women had been made redundant (and some of them whilst on maternity leave), others had relocated because of their partners’ role and been unable to find work, others were simply taking time out to rethink or retrain.
Recruiters are incentivised to place people as quickly as possible and people whose CVs have a gap often look too problematic.
What do you find are the main barriers for women wishing to return?
Sometimes the main barrier is in a woman’s head. One of the people featured in our book is a teacher, Jenni, who had taken a 10 year break. She had kept telling herself the time wasn’t right, “The family wouldn’t cope without me” “I couldn’t be the teacher I was before”,“I’m too old” were some of the reasons swirling around in her head.
Once she did decide to go back, she realised that, of course, she wouldn’t be the teacher she was before (in at 7am out at 7pm) but she was actually better through all those years’ experience of being a parent.
There are other barriers though. The recruitment industry does not help. Applicant tracking systems throw out CVs that are not a perfect match to a job description; recruiters are incentivised to place people as quickly as possible and people whose CVs have a gap often look too problematic. And that’s even before you start asking for any flexibility.
Know your worth and be prepared to negotiate.
Is a salary cut inevitable? Do employers largely exploit the extended leave to offer lower salaries?
No it’s not inevitable but you have to do your homework, know your worth and be prepared to negotiate. There are websites such as Glass Door and Total Jobs, for example, where you can look up information on salary levels for particular jobs and doing some research on what other, similar jobs are being advertised at on places like LinkedIn can help. More importantly, though, you need to be clear on your value.
Lucy, whose story also appears in the book, had a career in marketing in Financial Services. It’s a sector that pays very well but didn’t offer the flexibility she wanted. She knew her value, though, and was able to negotiate a fabulous arrangement working for the British Chambers of Commerce. Their budget was limited but that was fine because she wanted to work 2 ½ days a week. She has a really interesting job that pays what she needs for the days she wants to work; they have a really experienced marketing manager to help with their branding and marketing.
We are not charity cases. We have years experience prior to taking a break and we bring immense social capital in the form of our networks and relationships.
How can companies accommodate and entice more women back to the workplace, and why would they want to?
The first thing companies need to do is recognise that this is a hugely valuable pool of talent. They (we) are not charity cases. We have years experience prior to taking a break and we bring immense social capital in the form of our networks and relationships. Having more experienced, mature women around the place can only be of value.
In terms of enticing people back, you have to create a supportive environment. 84% of women we surveyed said that the most important thing in making their return a success would be “a line manager who wants me to succeed”.
Flexibility is also crucial. These are experienced, mature women. They are raising the nation’s children. They don’t need to be in an office Monday to Friday 9 to 5 to get a job done. They can be trusted.
Never say “I used to be”. Nobody is who they were five or 10 years ago.
What is the best way to frame your leave period on a C.V. and during the interview process?
On a C.V., we recommend keeping it brief. Only elaborate on what you have done if it’s relevant to the job in hand. The interview is different. Be prepared to explain why your break has made you even stronger. You will inevitably have gained a broader perspective on life. Draw on the other things you have done to demonstrate that you have the competencies the employer is looking for. Be specific. They will have boxes to tick so make it easy for them.
And be prepared to state the obvious. If you are returning after a break, you’ve probably had to put a lot of things in place to make this happen. You really want this job, you’re re-energised and ambitious for the next phase of your working life.
Preparing Yourself for a Return to the Workplace: 5 Tips from ‘She’s Back’
1.Develop your pitch. Never say “I used to be”.
Nobody is who they were five or 10 years ago. Think about how you have changed, what you could offer now and how it is relevant to an employer.
2. Develop your network.
You are five times more likely to find work through your network than through a recruiter. Use your networks, put yourself out there. Talk to people, think about how you can help them. Don’t be shy about asking for help – most people will be flattered.
Use websites like Eventbrite to find events and workshops that are relevant to your skills and experience. Many are free. Join alumni groups and professional networks and go to their events.
3. Do your homework.
Finding a job is a job in itself – set aside the time and effort to do it as well as you can. Figure out who is hiring people for the sort of role you want. Follow them, look for connections, make introductions. Have a plan and track your progress so you don’t let emotions throw you.
4. Make friends with LinkedIn.
Lots of women who’ve been on a break eschew LinkedIn. And yet, this is where all the jobs are and where all the hiring managers hang out. Take the time to create a professional profile there – including a professional photo. It’s also a fabulous way of reconnecting with all the people you know and used to work with, in a professional capacity.
5. Don’t start with the F word.
Flexibility. Yes, we know how much it means to you, how much you need and want it. But here’s the thing – less than one in 10 quality jobs is advertised as flexible. Don’t limit your options by only applying for those jobs. Find employers who already appear to be open to flexibility and be prepared to apply for jobs that might be advertised as full time and negotiate. Often the default is “full time” but there are other options when you dig deeper.
WorkJuggle and Mumager will host a talk with Lisa Unwin entitled ‘She’s Back, the Future of Work’ on Monday 18th June at House, Leeson Street, Dublin 2. The event will run from 12-2pm. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for further information. Follow #shesbackireland for updates.