Career break women: don’t write yourself off!

This week I listened to Allison Pearson speak at a Working Families event about
the challenges of the Sandwich Generation – juggling work, elderly parents and
teenage children. As I laughed at her anecdotes, it rang a few too many bells as I’m currently recovering
from my daughter’s 18th birthday house party and making plans to support my
parents during my mother’s imminent hip operation  … while fitting in
the day job of course! 

Allison also talked about her frustration that so many women she knows – all amazingly talented – have given up hope of getting
their careers back after taking many years out of the workforce to bring up their
children. This I can also relate to; I regularly meet talented and experienced women on career
breaks who have similarly written themselves off. 

Typical is Jackie, who
stepped back from a high-flying 18-year career when jetting around the world
for client pitches became impossible with three young children. She told me
apologetically: “I’ve mainly been just a mum for years now, doing bits of
consultancy for small businesses, nothing exciting.” Approaching her
fifties, with teenage children, she was sceptical of her chances of restarting
her career: “I’d love to have a great job again but it’s been too long.
Who would want me now? Media is a young person’s world and I’m too old to start
again.”

I can remember my own doubts and insecurities after four years out. It is so
easy to give up when well-crafted job applications are ignored and recruiters
dismiss your chances. Keen to relaunch in your previous field, you can start
your job search with a burst of enthusiasm, but then rapidly become
disillusioned. 48-year-old Carmen, who had wanted to resume her career as a
City macro-economist, was told by a headhunter that she had “no chance on
earth of going back to the financial sector” after a seven year break. So
she wrote off this option, decided she’d have to start again at the bottom and
took a minimum wage internship with a charity.

At Women Returners we are fighting hard at a business level to tackle this waste of female talent,
by working with organisations to create more routes back into satisfying
corporate roles. But if we’re going to succeed in this objective, we also need
you to remove any limits you are placing on yourself – to value yourself and
what you can bring to the workforce:

1. Don’t minimise yourself. You’re not “just a mum”, you didn’t run
“just a small business from home” and your previous professional
success wasn’t down to luck.

2. Remember you are still the same talented professional woman you were and you
will quickly get back up to speed. You also have a wealth of new skills
developed during your break, combined with maturity and a fresh perspective.

3. Know that UK businesses want you back. Companies from Credit Suisse to
Thames Tideway Tunnel are launching returner programmes. I talk every week to
many companies who see returners as an untapped talent pool which can both fill
capability gaps and build diversity.

4. Be open-minded about new possibilities. If you don’t want to go back to your
old career, you are not too old to retrain into a new career or set up your own
business and, most importantly, all those years of experience will still count.

5. Don’t give up. We’re not claiming that getting back into a great job after
many years out is easy, but it is possible with determination and persistence,
as our many return-to-work success stories demonstrate.

Carmen didn’t give up and is now back working as an Executive Director in the
City through participating in Morgan Stanley’s returnship programme. And Jackie
is starting to explore other options as well as reconnecting with her
ex-colleagues who remember her as an amazing boss, not “just a mum”.
If you want to restart your career, remind yourself of Henry Ford’s words …

Posted by Julianne; Adapted from a Mumsnet Guest blog I
wrote in April.

How do you define success?

What does success mean to you? It’s an interesting question to consider as you go through your career and particularly when you are considering your options after a career break.

Conceptions of career success
When we talk about how successful someone is in their career, we still tend to use the obvious external markers. How much are they earning? What level have they reached in an organisation? If you consider that being the CEO earning £1m+ a year is the pinnacle of career success, it’s easy to feel that you have failed in your career once you’ve stepped off the career ladder to the top.
In fact, research has shown that the majority of people tend to judge their own success by more subjective measures. A classic study by Jane Sturges found that factors such as enjoyment, accomplishment, influence, expertise and personal recognition rated highly in a group of managers’ descriptions of what success meant to them. For all of the women in the study, the content of the job was rated as more important than pay or status. Balance criteria were also used by some of the managers – meaning that success for them was how effectively they combined a satisfying home and work life. From my perspective, achieving fulfillment and satisfaction in both home and work life is one of the greatest measures of career success, yet one that is rarely mentioned when we commonly talk or read about successful people.
What does success mean to you?
Developing your own success criteria can help you to feel more positive about the choices you have made to date and to develop clearer objectives for this next stage of your career.
A useful coaching exercise to help with this is to mentally fast-forward to your 70th birthday. To put you in the right frame of mind, imagine who is there with you, where you are, even what you are wearing.  Now imagine you’re giving a speech discussing what you’re proud of having achieved in your career and your life as a whole. What comes to mind? What will make you feel you have succeeded in your life? Write down whatever comes to mind and you’ll have a good starting point for developing your own personal view of success. And that’s what really matters…
 

Reference: What it means to succeed – Jane Sturges (1999)

Posted by Julianne 

Building Self-Efficacy – Believing that you can succeed!

The Problem with Confidence

It’s often reported that women’s self-confidence plummets during a career break. A recent study* found that women on maternity leave start to lose confidence in their ability to return to work only 11 months after giving birth.
The problem with labelling return-to-work doubts as a ‘confidence issue’ is that we use the same explanation for a wide range of setbacks that women face in the workplace: from presentation nerves to not putting ourselves forward for a promotion or (as Sheryl Sandberg would say) ‘not taking a seat at the table’. It’s become too much of a general catch-all.
I would suggest that we need a different term to describe the (often extreme) self-doubt that women can experience when they consider returning to the workplace after a long time out. This is the doubt that stops you even believing that it’s possible to get back into a satisfying role .. the doubt that made a highly talented MBA with 15 years’ experience say to me after her 6 year break “I’m a write-off – no-one will want to hire me now”.
Self-Efficacy

From a psychology perspective, what you’re experiencing in this situation is better termed “low self-efficacy”. The psychologist Albert Bandura described self-efficacy as a person’s belief in their ability to succeed in a particular situation. If you have low self-efficacy about getting back to work, then you feel less motivated and behave in negative ways that make you less likely to achieve your goal; you see barriers as insurmountable blocks rather than challenges to overcome, you lose focus and interest more quickly, and you struggle to pick yourself up again when you hit an inevitable setback.
Building Self-Efficacy

The encouraging thing about self-efficacy is that it’s not fixed – there are specific ways to boost it. Bandura identified four key sources of self-efficacy, three of which are within your control and the other you can influence:
1. Mastery. Performing a task successfully through hard work and effort improves self-efficacy. If you haven’t worked for many years, you will feel ‘rusty’. Create opportunities to do work-related tasks that feel daunting to you, but in a low risk environment, such as offering to chair a volunteers’ meeting or taking a training course which involves group & presentation work.
2. Social Modelling. Seeing other people being successful raises our belief that we can do it too. We need role models! That’s why we’re collecting success stories of women who have successfully relaunched their careers. Read our stories & actively seek out women who have already gone down the road you want to take.
3. Social Persuasion. Getting encouragement from others helps us to overcome self-doubt. Spend more time with people who will encourage you and give you a boost, and less with the downbeat ‘energy vampires’ in your life! Remember that the people you are closest to may be discouraging about your return to work because they are worried about the impact it will have on their lives.
4. Psychological Responses. Better managing your stress levels and emotions can improve your confidence. Work out what helps you to feel calmer under stress – maybe having time to prepare, going for a run, or just taking a few deep breaths – and use these techniques consciously next time you’re under pressure. Think about taking a yoga or mindfulness course if you find it difficult to manage your stress levels and emotions.
And you can use this framework to build your self-efficacy once you’re back at work too!

* AAT, 2013

Posted by Julianne

The value of older women to the workforce

Many returners believe
that being older makes them less appealing to 
employers.  Geraldine Bedell, former editor of Gransnet,
co-founder of The Family Innovation zone and author of Mothers of Innovation outlines
government data and other research which firmly rebuts this view and provides
encouragement and insight for returners.

Lives are getting longer: we all know that. What is less
often acknowledged is that the extra years haven’t all been tacked on at the end.
They’ve gone into the middle. Many of us are contemplating lives that look
vastly different from those of our mothers, let alone our grandmothers;
anticipating a phase of life after child rearing that is healthy, mentally
competent, energetic and prolonged.
Women returners understand this from the inside: we know we
have skills, energy, judgement and competence that make us useful to the world
of employment. It’s fair to say, though, that employers have taken a long time
to realise this. Even as changing demographics open up possibilities for different
life stages, we still assume that key career progress has to be made at the
very time we are most preoccupied with small children.
Things are changing. Clever businesses have long understood
that diversity is the key to successful teams. It may have taken them a while
to realise that diversity includes age but they are doing so now, and for good business
reasons: it has been estimated that there will be 13.5m job vacancies in the UK
in the next 10 years but only 7m young people will be leaving school and
college.
Beyond the need to fill desks, many of the myths about older
workers are now known to be unfounded. A recent guide from the Department of
Work and Pensions* insists that older workers:

  • are just as productive as younger workers
  • are just as successful in training and learning
    new skills
  • take less short-term time off sick
  • offset any loss of speed – with technology, for
    example – with better judgement
  • are just as likely to commit to an employer
It’s understandable that women who have been on a career
break assume that technology and ways of doing things have moved on. That may
be true – but management of technology and of colleagues is a skill, and the
point about skills is that they can be learnt, often remarkably quickly. There
is no reason to suppose a woman returner is going to be much slower picking up ways
of doing things than someone transferring from another company.
What older women do bring – as enlightened employers are
increasingly acknowledging – is a lifetime of skills, experience and wisdom.
Increasingly, brain research is showing that what we have traditionally called
wisdom is a demonstrable function of the older brain. As Barbara Strauch observes
in her book The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain, we have ‘an increased
capacity, as we age, to recognise patterns and anticipate situations, to
predict a likely future, and to act appropriately.’
The DWP* also reports that organisations with an
intergenerational workforce find that there are benefits for both older and
younger staff, including opportunities for mentoring and an exchange of skills.
The recent appointment of Ros Altmann as the government’s champion for older
workers should help; and the demographics are in our favour. But the most
important thing is that older women returners bring masses of experience,
skill, discernment and sophistication. As Eleanor Roosevelt said: ‘A mature person
is one who doesn’t

think only in absolutes, who is able to be objective even
when deeply stirred emotionally, who has learned that there is both good and
bad in all people and all things.’ Lots of reasons to be confident, then,
because that’s a pretty valuable set of attributes.

Guest blog by Geraldine Bedell co-founder of The Family Innovation Zone

Adopting the right mindset

I’m not going to tell you to ALWAYS BE POSITIVE: we don’t claim that returning to work after a long break is easy – wishful-thinking can mean sticking your head in the sand. The ‘unrealistic’ optimist can wait for the perfect job to land in her lap or will keep going with an unsuccessful strategy (such as scatter-gun online applications) as she believes that ‘it will all come right in the end’. 
On the other hand, we commonly find that the returner who claims she is being ‘realistic’ is actually holding a pessimistic perspective that too quickly dismisses the possibility of finding a rewarding job with a reasonable lifestyle.The pessimistic ‘realist’ tends to believe the worst, rapidly hits disillusionment when she hits a few setbacks and decides that it’s hopeless and not worth the effort.
I prefer the perspective of psychologist Sandra Schneider who suggests that optimism and realism are not in conflict – we need both. She proposes that we aim for ‘realistic optimism’. The realistic optimist finds out the facts and the data; she acknowledges the challenges and constraints she faces. Her optimism comes into play in her interpretation of ambiguous events – she recognises that many situations have a range of possible interpretations and chooses a helpful rather than an unhelpful one. She gives people the benefit of the doubt, is aware of the positives in her current situation and actively looks for opportunities in the future.
How to develop your ‘realistic optimism’ in practice

You face a setback, for example you’ve sent a ‘getting back in touch’ email to an old colleague and haven’t received a reply after a week. Your first response might be to conclude that she’s not interested in talking to you, she doesn’t remember you or maybe she didn’t like you anyway. So you feel dispirited, write her off as a network contact and lose motivation to pursue other contacts. Instead try this:
  • Think creatively of all the other realistic reasons why she hasn’t replied. Maybe your email is sitting in her Junk Mail, maybe she put it aside to reply to later and it got lost in her inbox, maybe she’s changed her email address, maybe she’s on holiday or working abroad or just frantically busy … there are so many possibilities.
  • Thinking about this wide variety of explanations, decide how to respond so you are in control. Send the email again to check you have the correct address, contact her through a mutual friend or pick up the phone and call her.
  • If she still doesn’t get back to you, choose a realistically optimistic interpretation that doesn’t knock your self-confidence (e.g. even if she’s too busy, you can still contact others) and try a different strategy. Continually weigh up the facts and creatively consider all your options to decide the best course of action.
There’s evidence that realistic optimism can boost your resilience and motivation, improve your day-to-day satisfaction with life and lead to better work outcomes. And it’s not about your genes – we can all learn to be realistic optimists.
Posted by Julianne
For those of you interested in the research
Schneider, S.L. (2001). In search of realistic optimism: meaning, knowledge and warm fuzziness. American Psychologist56(3), 250-263.

Tackling return-to-work fears and doubts: how to stop your brain getting in your way

Return-to-Work Fears & Doubts

We have supported a large number of women considering returning to work after a long break. Many of the same worries & doubts loom large:
What if … I can’t do what I did before? I try and fail? No-one wants to employ me with a big CV gap? I can’t find a good flexible job / affordable childcare? My brain’s gone to mush.
I’m just being selfish. I feel guilty about wanting to work …
However much we want to get back to work, these fears and doubts can stop us in our tracks. And we find ourselves in the same stuck place a year later wondering why we haven’t made any progress

Recognise your Negativity Bias & Inner Critic
We’re smart women – we’re used to thinking our way out of a difficult situation. But in this case your mind may be your biggest problem rather than your problem-solver. Understanding a bit about our mental make-up explains why.

1. We have a ‘negativity bias’. As the neuropsychologist Rick Hanson says,our minds are like Velcro for the negative & Teflon for the positive. Negative thoughts stick in our brains while the positive ones just roll off.

There is a reason for this. Our brains evolved to keep us safe in the time of woolly mammoths. They’re primed to scan the environment for danger and to shout out all the risks. Better err on the side of caution than be someone’s lunch.

So when you’re thinking about making a major change like going back to work after a long break & maybe changing career direction, your mind left to its own devices may well tell you DON’T DO IT! Your thoughts will naturally focus on all the reasons why not and all the downsides.

2. Alongside the negativity, your ‘inner critic’ fires up as the self-critical soundtrack inside your head judges you harshly …
I’m being selfish for wanting to work
My children will suffer if I leave them
I won’t be good-enough if I can’t give 100% 
The subtext of all of these – I’m a Bad Mother if I go back to work.

As we tend to believe our minds, we see these thoughts as facts and make our decisions as if they were the truth. So we stay put and don’t make a change. And we feel reassured for a while because the fears go away. But we’re still not happy and fulfilled …


Balance the negativity
The good news is that we can balance the negativity. Don’t try to get rid of your negative thoughts & Always Think Positive- you’ll be fighting a losing battle. Aim instead to create a more balanced view:
1. Listen to your negative thoughts and inner critical voices. Write them down to get them out of your head & weigh them up
2. Consider what evidence you have to support them and challenge yourself to find evidence against them
3. Tune down the negative ‘Radio doom & gloom’ in your head by not paying it so much attention
4. Create more helpful messages & tune these up by reminding yourself of them frequently
I’ve lost all my work skills => I still have my old skills, they just need sharpening up
   I’m being selfish => my family will benefit if I’m happier and have more energy for them
5. Remind yourself of your strengths and achievements. Write them down
6. For every job option you consider write down why it could work as well as why not

Reduce your fears by taking steps forward
Fears are normal in any change. You really do have to Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway! (a great book by the way). Stop over-thinking & start taking action. Get practical and emotional support: even strong women need help to change! Focus less on the speed of the change and more on keeping moving forward. And read the ‘routes back to work‘ posts on our blog for tips on the many actions you can take.

Related Posts
Do all working mothers have to feel guilty?
Do mothers need to Ban Selfish?
Are you your own worst enemy?
Stop thinking and start doing


Posted by Julianne

Do mothers need to Ban Selfish?

Sheryl Sandberg’s Ban Bossy campaign has sent a strong message to young girls. It illustrates how powerful words can be in labelling ourselves and shaping our thoughts and feelings. Personally, I’d like to ban the overuse of a word that both holds back mothers from enjoying their work-family lives and can get in the way of a successful return to work. Mothers, let’s Ban Selfish!

How often before having children did we label doing something positive just for ourselves – playing a sport, learning a language, reading a book – as ‘selfish’? Never, that I can remember. In fact, we usually felt quite pleased with ourselves that we weren’t just slumping in front of the TV but were staying healthy or continuing learning new skills outside of work.

But I’ve noticed that a strange transformation comes over many women when children arrive. Suddenly doing something for ourselves starts to make us feel bad, rather than good … it becomes ‘selfish’.

In the last few months, I’ve heard mothers describe all of these as ‘selfish’:
* Going for a run on a Saturday morning / a yoga class on a Thursday evening
* Signing up for a Monday evening cookery class
* Re-reading Jane Austen on a Sunday morning
* Going to an evening work event to make new contacts
* Catching up on reading work journals for an hour on a Saturday

Taken further, some women describe their desire to return to paid work as ‘selfish’, usually if they don’t financially need to work but are feeling unfulfilled at home. It can be seen as a personal failing: “Why can’t I just be happy looking after my kids?”

By using the term ‘selfish’, we’re telling ourselves that we are lacking consideration for others and prioritising our interests above everyone else’s*.  In fact the opposite is true. We see these choices as selfish because we’re putting our needs at the bottom of the pile. Driven by caring for others, we can end up becoming martyrs to our family.

It’s time to remember that balancing your needs alongside the needs of your family is not selfish. It’s a healthy and positive attitude that is likely to improve your family life as you will be happier and more energised. Who wants a bored, frustrated and ‘selfless’ mother?

Are you ready to Ban Selfish?

Further reading
Am I being a martyr?

*Selfish definition: “Lacking consideration for other people; chiefly concerned with one’s own personal profit or pleasure”

Posted by Julianne

The Confidence Gap – and how too address it

The book The Confidence Code, by two US journalists, highlights a phenomenon that many of us know from our own experience – in general, women tend to be less confident than men.  Although the book is written from the perspective of working women, it has useful insights and ideas for women returning to work after a break, when our confidence is often at a low point.

Research data

The authors have gathered together and reviewed the research into this topic. Highlights include:

  • A 2003 study by two university psychologists which showed that women consistently under-rated their performance in a variety of maths and science tests while men over-rated theirs.  In reality, the performance of both sexes was on a par
  • A 7 year experiment by a Manchester Business School professor on her students which found that men expected to earn much more than their female colleagues – and believed they deserved to earn more than the women believed
  • A Hewlett Packard study which found that women don’t go for promotion unless they feel they have close to 100% of the required qualifications while men go for it with only 60% of what’s required

There are many explanations for the disparity in confidence levels – the confidence ‘gap’.  As you would expect, they include genetic makeup (brain differences as well as hormones), upbringing (for example, what is termed ‘bossiness’ in a young girl will be described as ‘leadership’ in a young boy) and cultural factors in societies and organisations.

So women are, once again, at fault for their lack of progress?

Commentators including Amanda Duberman at the Huffington Post have objected that the idea of the confidence gap is – once again – putting the blame on women for their apparent lack of progress in the workplace.  The objectors suggest that inequality is caused by workplace sexism, not women themselves.  This is a similar argument to that levelled at Sheryl Sandberg and her Lean In project.  In my view, based squarely on my experience as a coach and former corporate professional, the reason women are held back in the workplace is a complex mixture of both workplace culture and certain female characteristics.  What The Confidence Code and Lean In offer to women is an opportunity to reflect on our own contribution, to identify where and when we are being our own worst enemy and to identify actions we can take to close the confidence gap. Returning from a break, it gives a push to apply for the job we want even if we’re not 100% qualified and to negotiate for a higher salary rather than feeling grateful and accepting the first offer!

Practical ways to build your confidence

Fortunately, discoveries in neuroscience and psychology show that it is possible to amend our thought patterns to build confidence and self-belief: with time and practice we can tune down self-critical and doubting thoughts and reinforce more supportive ones. See our previous posts on:

The common thread through all these posts is an emphasis on action.  In the book, Richard Perry, a psychology professor at Ohio State University describes confidence as ‘the stuff that turns thoughts into action’. By taking action we give ourselves the opportunity to discover what we are capable of which builds our confidence and this in turn encourages further action. A virtuous circle is created and confidence accumulates as the brain replaces old thinking with new.

Posted by Katerina – co-founder of Women Returners

How organisations and individuals can ease the return-to-work ‘sticky door’

Last week Nemat Shafik, the new Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, proposed that instead of breaking the ‘glass ceiling’ to reach senior levels, women need to push through the ‘sticky door’:

women and girls should not look up to a glass ceiling but switch their gaze straight ahead to a “sticky door” which is blocking women from breaking through. It helps if there are allies on the other side pulling the handle too, … But it is not everything – it’s mainly up to women to put their shoulders to the door and give it a hard shove.”
Interview of Nemat Shafik with Jane Merrick, The Independent, 19/3/14

This metaphor definitely feels more possible and a lot less painful than breaking a glass ceiling. I think it works just as well for professional women returning to work after a long career break as for women employees aiming for Board level …
How organisations can ease the door
We need ‘allies on the other side pulling the handle’. Our allies are organisations which recognise the value of this neglected pool of highly-qualified and experienced senior women and are prepared to facilitate their re-entry into the workforce in practical ways:
  • developing specific recruitment channels to get round the HR ‘CV gap’ screening block
  • offering returning professional internships (returnships) as a targeted route back.
  • providing coaching & mentoring for the transition period
  • keeping in touch with alumnae while they’ve left the workplace so they feel the door is still open!
How individuals can ease the door
And returning women need to give a ‘hard shove’. No-one says that getting back into a satisfying and fulfilling role after a long time out is easy. But it is possible if:
 
Our role 
 
At Women Returners, we recognise the return-to-work door is still very sticky and we’re aiming to add some oil to ease it up. We’re encouraging you to keep shoving and organisations to pull harder!
(OK, I’ve taken the metaphor as far as I can now …)
Posted by Julianne

Are you trying to be a work-home Superhero?

Do you feel you have to do everything for your family and find it impossible to let go of even the smallest detail?   Do you tidy your house before your cleaner comes or run to school with a child’s forgotten homework?  Do you volunteer for lots of local committees and take on more than your share of work?  If so, you are probably feeling taken for granted and resentful of others who aren’t doing their bit.  And at the same time, you can’t see how you could possibly return to work when nobody else can do what you do!

If this sounds familiar to you, you are probably trying to be a superhero.  It is also likely that you behaved like this at work, before your career break, so it is even harder to work out how you could combine work with all your more recent non-work responsibilities.

What is behind being a superhero?

This superhero behaviour is common enough for psychologists to have recognised and researched it.  It is often referred to as pleaser behaviour as it arises from a need to gain approval from others (work colleagues, family, children).  To gain approval, the pleaser will do whatever is asked of them, hates to say no and will always say that they are ‘coping’ no matter what is going on.  The downside of the behaviour is that the pleaser doesn’t balance what they are doing for others with their own needs and the lack of balance builds resentment.

How can you get back to work without being a superhero?

  1. As mentioned in previous posts on unhelpful thought patterns, becoming aware of your pattern is the first step, so try to catch yourself when you’re about to put your hand up for a project or about to save your children from learning by their own mistakes
  2. Work out which of the non-work tasks you do that others could do instead. And decide which tasks don’t really need doing and just won’t be done when you go back to work
  3. Accept practical or emotional support.  Asking for help is not a weakness, we all need it.
  4. Get some practice with saying ‘no’ and learn to handle any unpleasant feelings and fears this brings up in you.  You might discover it is easier than you expected!
  5. Take care of yourself: build some activities into your schedule that are things you enjoy doing.  Read our post about guilt if you find this idea difficult
  6. Remember that you will be a more effective worker and more fulfilled parent if you balance what you are doing for others with taking care of your own needs too
Posted by Katerina