Decades of research have found that women who take an extended career break in order to care for their families are disproportionately likely to suffer career setbacks or even permanently leave the workforce as a result. In the technology and IT sector, this inequity is even greater—depriving an already gender-weighted industry of even more of its potential workforce. The question is, how can this problem be mitigated?
An individual's reasons for taking a career break are their own, but in the workplace, employers can still play a role in giving returning women opportunities and helping to ease the transition for them. A recent panel discussion in support of SG Women in Tech suggested a few critical things HR can do to make it less likely that these women's skills and experience will be overlooked or wasted, and also provided some suggestions for women who wish to prepare themselves for a return to the workforce.
What HR can do
Have protocols to reduce bias in the hiring process
HR will need to actively educate hiring departments about the need for diversity, and set specific goals and expectations in order to mitigate unconscious bias. Examples might include shortlisting a certain percentage of women for interviews and having a similar percentage in the final candidate lineup, or to have a certain percentage of new hires who are women going forward.
Besides gender bias, HR will need to educate hiring managers about the difference between hiring a fresh graduate, hiring an experienced person, and hiring an individual who has experience, but also has a career gap or is moving from a different sector.
For this last group, it is very important to consider potential rather than just performance or experience, according to Sher-Li Torrey, the founder of career portal for working mothers Mums@Work. "The career gap is experience that you don't see as valuable," she observed.
When evaluating women who have taken a career break, hiring managers should focus on their ability to reintegrate into the workforce rather than fixating only upon their technical qualifications or credentials.
Adjust onboarding and performance management parameters
The onboarding process for returning professionals needs to be fine-tuned for that reintegration. Women who have just stepped back into the workforce will need additional support during their transition period: more touchpoints with their manager, more opportunities to connect with the team, and if possible, assigning a mentor or buddy to help them adapt. Having appropriate facilities, such as a pumping room for mothers who are still nursing, will further help ease the transition.
Further adjustments will have to be made in performance management. Assessments for new hires are usually performance-based, and hinge upon the expectation that an employee is already at a certain level of knowledge and skill rather than the expectation that they have already attained that level, and are now regaining it. However, the latter expectation is far more relevant to women returning after a career break.
Hence, assessments for the first three months should track a returning professional woman's ability to learn and adapt, rather than simple performance.
What women themselves can do
Refresh their skills and knowledge
In technology and IT, the speed of change and innovation can leave many behind. However, with the proliferation of online education—and especially during this period, when learning and development has had to shift to the virtual arena—it is no longer quite as difficult to use one's downtime to upskill or remain up to date as it might have been 10 years ago.
At the very least, women who intend to return to the IT workforce after a longer career break need to set aside some time to read about current trends such as data analytics and visualization, automation, or AI. With that breadth of knowledge regarding what is presently relevant in the industry and pertinent to society, they can select specific skills to develop in depth.
Greg Unsworth, Digital Business and Risk Assurance Leader, PwC Singapore, further suggests reaching out to groups for industry professionals and engaging with people who are currently in the workforce, so as to get a better idea of the actual landscape. He said: "I encourage everyone to keep in touch with people who can help them, who are still in the workforce and in touch with ongoing trends."
Build their professional networks
Many job-seekers with less conventional career paths will find that their resumes are all too often rejected by automatic filters, regardless of their attempts to show relevant skills and knowledge. Hence, the frequency of advice to network and seek out connections within their industry of choice.
Successful networking efforts do require a certain amount of leaving one's comfort zone. For example, women seeking a return to their profession after a career break often tend to only approach networks set up primarily for women. Rather than limiting oneself to that segment, they should also engage with industry networks which have a broader reach.
Seeking out mentors, whether formal or informal, can also be very helpful: someone who is highly knowledgeable or well-connected, who can impart industry knowledge and norms or help provide access to new opportunities. And returning professional women should not overlook the value of reverse mentoring—finding someone who is younger and more dynamic, who is more "plugged in" to new technology.
Adjust to more realistic expectations of themselves and their work
Many women who wish to return to the workforce face competing demands on their time, including a clash between family and work needs, and may feel themselves not up to the challenge. Sher-Li observed that the professional women she has counselled often lack confidence and that it shows when they attend job interviews, as well as when they actually land the job: "When they first go back to work, they are so afraid of showing that they are not competent," she said.
To deal with that insecurity, she suggested firstly, on the job-seeking front, to think of the first job they land as simply a springboard to restarting their career: it may not necessarily be what they hoped for, it may be a contract position, a temporary role lasting just a few months, even a flexible or part-time position, but it will end that gap in their resume and give them the opportunity to prove to themselves that they do still have the competence from their earlier experience.
COVID-19 may reduce some obstacles in the future
The shifts brought about by COVID-19 could potentially make the return to the workforce easier for professional women, especially in IT and technology. Firstly, as many industry observers and recruiters are observing, the demand for IT talent is rising very rapidly, and employers can less and less afford to be choosy or to let automatic filters deplete their candidate pool.
At the same time, the last few months of working from home has opened the minds of many employers towards giving their workforce greater flexibility. This is potentially a great boon to working parents, including new mothers returning to the workforce but still needing to balance their role as caregivers with their work responsibilities.
The move to remote working has also accelerated the trend towards hiring from a global talent pool. Already growing even before the pandemic, it is likely to become even more common, meaning that women returning to the IT workforce could be less constrained by their geographical location.
In short, although the path back to working life can be difficult and discouraging, it is not impossible. With HR today becoming increasingly enlightened towards diversity and a greater number of tools available to assist the return to the workforce, it's still possible to beat the inequities in the system.