Career breaks for women have benefits despite the challenges

Australian business women have revealed that an extended break from work does not always have a negative impact on their future career.

A survey of 115 state and territory finalists of the 2013 Telstra Business Women’s Awards found that over half, 55%, said that taking time out could be positive.

They reported that it enables time to reassess life goals and career goals, while 87% agreed that taking parental leave could be a catalyst for launching their own business.

The survey found that 36% said a career break lead them to try something different to their usual profession.

These career breaks may be taken for maternity leave, study leave, extended travel or other personal reasons.

However, despite some of the positive potential of career breaks, the survey found that old issues remain prevalent.

It found 89% of respondents say women face challenges when returning to work after a career break. Forty per cent of women find it difficult to return to the workforce at the same level as they were at before the break, while 33% believed career break impacts negatively on wealth creation.

Manager of marine environment salvage and intervention at the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, and the 2012 ACT Telstra Young Business Women’s Award winner Jocelyn Parsons once took a career break after eight years in the Navy.

She told SmartCompany this morning it was the first time she’d had the chance to step outside of the Navy environment and explore new things. She spent two years in the UK with her spouse.

“It was a positive for me, I had joined the Navy at 17 years old, and wanted to look for experience elsewhere,” she says.

While it proved a positive opportunity for Parsons, she is aware that many businesses still view letting someone take leave for personal growth, whether it be male or female, as a risk.

“Most employers will see it as a loss… they’ve got to make a business decision to take the hit,” she says.

However, Parsons says if employers and employees can work collaboratively, it can be a huge benefit to the company when the employee returns, armed with new skills and life experience.

She says both females and males find it challenging returning to work after a break, as the company may have progressed and it takes effort to get up to date.

“It requires support and respect… but businesses should recognise the positives,” she says.

For business owners, the challenge of taking a career break of their own can be more about how to keep operations running smoothly when they are not there.

The managing director of Carman’s Fine Foods, Carolyn Creswell, who won the 2012 Telstra Australian Business Woman of the Year award, doesn’t think women should avoid a necessary career break if well planned. She said if female business owners leave behind a good team, a break can happen smoothly.

“It’s amazing how dispensable you are,” she said. “When you have great people at work, the business just keeps going.”

The survey was undertaken in the lead-up to the national finals of the Telstra Business Women’s Awards in Melbourne on November 14.

The findings come as a group of executive search firms have announced their commitment to a voluntary code of practice to improve women’s participation in business.

The voluntary code has seven key principals of best practice to assist in improving gender balance in senior teams. It covers the lifecycle of an executive search campaign, including assisting clients with diversity protocols, to identifying female candidates, and induction.

The businesses committed to the code include Egon Zehnder, Heidrick & Struggles, Korn/Ferry, Russell Reynolds and Spencer Stuart.

The code falls in line with Business Council of Australia’s push to improve the recruitment and promotional opportunities for women in senior roles.

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