professional development

Worried about career breaks? It helps to put the full length of your career in perspective

Women's Agenda /

By Belinda Elworthy. 

It’s hard to believe that a young woman leaving school today will have 17 different employers in her lifetime, and 5 different careers.

And while 5 careers may not seem realistic to a woman in her mid-career today, a handful of career pursuits over a 52-year career is certainly feasible.

Let’s unpack this a little further. Fifty two years in the workforce seems like a long time, but when you consider that you are likely to start paid work in your late teens or early twenties, and retire from all work in your late 60’s or early 70’s, the math quickly adds up. 52 years, give or take a few years either side, is a fairly accurate estimate of a woman’s career tenure.

Now, let’s consider taking a temporary career break from this career. When you employ a big-picture perspective, devoting 5, 10, or even 15 years to raise children is hardly something that should derail a career with a half-century timeline.

But the reality is it can, and it does. We see all too often the derailment of a woman’s confidence after she takes a career break. Women who previously commanded impressive salaries, solved complex problems, led teams of people and contributed enormous value to organisations. Women who now question their commercial worth and their ability to return to the workforce in a powerful, meaningful and rewarding way. What should, and could, be a temporary, career-and-life-enhancing investment of time can become a catalyst for career delay, career derailment and even career abandonment.

Yes, employers have a lot to answer for. Short-sighted recruitment decisions and lack of flexible work arrangements not only rob women of reaching their potential, they also rob industry of much-needed innovation, leadership and productivity. It’s well-accepted that women working in flexible arrangements are the most productive segment of our workforce, yet many employers still display a reluctance to recruit highly engaged mothers.

Yes, governments have a lot to answer for. Our sub-optimal childcare support system falls short in facilitating both parents to integrate work and home life in a sustainable way, whenever they are ready to. Lower maternal workforce participation and under-employment also burdens the economy when it results in poor superannuation accumulation by women over multiple decades.

Our society has a lot to answer for too. Without playing the blame game, study after study reports the over-investment in domestic labour by working mothers and the comparative under-investment by their partners. This trend is often coupled with burnout, decreased wellbeing and relationship breakdown.

The media isn’t much help either. Motherhood is often depicted as either hyper-intensive or disconnected, and often fails to share the stories of women who successfully integrate engaged parenting with career engagement.

But here’s the thing: Despite the external dynamics that can make it hard to return to meaningful and fulfilling work after a career break to care for kids, the key aspect of rebuilding confidence in one’s ability remains in the hands of the woman herself. Self-efficacy, more readily known as self-confidence, is one of psychology’s most well-researched concepts and what we do know is that the most powerful source of confidence-building will always be your own experience of achievement in life, coupled with self-attribution (attributing your success to something you did).

If women are to return to fulfilling and rewarding careers, despite the external challenges they may face, one big contributing factor to making it happen remains with them. Improved self-confidence enhances mental health, enables problem-solving and, perhaps most relevant in a return-to-work context, promotes resilience and persistence towards goals in the face of challenges. Re-building confidence is the foundation of any successful return to work plan.

Will there be hoops and hurdles to jump through? Maybe. Will returning to work require re-education, compromise and rejection? Probably. Will it require grit and resilience when you secure a role when your old peers are now in much more senior roles? You bet. But if you take a bigger-picture perspective, you’ll see that the transition is only temporary, and that you have more time than you think to reach the role you’ve been dreaming of.

There’s a lot women can do to rebuild the confidence they need to return to work and to thrive while they are there. We’ve devoted our entire business to this cause, and have developed psychology-based e-learning programs specially designed to help make this happen. In response to the information in this article though, there are two simple confidence-enhancing things you can do right now.

Firstly, get back in touch with your career and life achievements so far and forget humility as you attribute these successes to your specific strengths, abilities and actions. The more specific you can be, the better. Secondly, adopt a big-picture perspective. See your career break for what it actually is: a temporary, career-and-life-enhancing investment of your time.

Resist the temptation to focus on the short term, and you’ll see that you have up to twenty (or more) years of a meaningful career ahead of you. Don’t base your career decisions only on what you can see today, and you’ll have a better chance of taking action toward the direction of your dreams.

This piece was first published by Women’s Agenda. 

NOW READ: How Ai Mawdsley changed careers while pregnant – and what she learnt

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Women's Agenda is a publication for career-minded women who want to stay ahead of the conversation.

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