Career Break – Career End?
My last corporate role before gender transition was International Finance Director based in Dubai with global responsibilities. I won the appointment in competition with 320 other FD applicants. After 2 years, I left the company in Dubai in order to return to the UK and proceed with my gender transition. During this career break, while transitioning, I also studied and gained additional qualifications.
In the year following transition, I submitted numerous job applications and received not a single interview. The only difference on my CV from before my transition was one word, my name – now it was female.
However the reason I was getting no response, according to one employer’s recruitment specialist, was not because I was female but because I had taken a career break as he insisted that the last few years are what is most important in any job application. We had met in networking, had a great conversation about my diverse background and skill set and he claimed his firm won awards for diversity and would be a good employer. He commented on my impressive background and that he would be keen to get me in to meet with a few people and discuss things in more depth, but once he became aware of the career break on my CV .............silence. I never heard from him again despite following up.
The same issue was confirmed by two other recruiters. This confirms one of the reasons for the lack of women in senior management and leadership positions. Women are much more likely than men to take career breaks, and so when they try to get back into work and pick up their careers again, there is a problem in recruitment because they are ‘not currently in employment’ and have taken time out for an extended period. Regardless of the strengths and successes during their earlier career, it is only what a candidate is doing right now that appears to be relevant.
Source and Background
It is hard wired into men that they are the breadwinners and have to be in permanent employment without interruption to provide for family, whether they actually have a family or not. They can only envisage the concept of taking a career break for recreational or negative reasons.
For recruiters and employers, candidates coming out of a career break and seeking to pick up their career again should merely represent a greater degree of enquiry and assessment compared to candidates who are currently in a similar role, but not an automatic setting aside without further enquiry. It’s clearly much easier to put forward someone who is currently doing exactly the same job as the one that is advertised, but that excludes talent irrationally as a function of recruitment, rather than for any of lack of skills and experience. It also inhibits innovation and growth.
If recruiters claim to support women, disabled people, those who undertake gender reassignment and others who, out of necessity, take career breaks, then they need to overcome the bias that sets those perfectly capable candidates aside automatically and repeatedly.
Recruiters’ response is often along the lines that a candidate who has taken an extended career break ‘is being naive if they think they can come back in where they left off’. Perhaps they should ask first before assuming that this is our expectation or that we would not get back up to speed much more quickly than they assume. Instead of talking down to us, many of whom have far more business experience and value than the recruiters, they should appreciate that if we wish to return to corporate leadership, it’s because we know we have a great deal to offer.
A handful of financial services employers have recently established ‘returners programmes’, which are a useful initiative but often heavily oversubscribed. However, while most women returning after a career break report getting their confidence and skills back within a couple of months, then it is not always necessary to have structured programmes that imply the problem is with the candidate/employee, rather than also with the recruitment and induction processes and the organisation culture.
Some professions such as accountancy require us to keep up to date with CPD in any case, and the way in which we manage people, lead projects, create strategy, and make decisions etc is not going to alter markedly from the way we successfully did things before the career break. Ultimately it is a candidate’s skills, personality, abilities and future development potential that should determine their value to an employer, and not whether they represent the least effort to assess, shortlist and present to the client.
The Voluntary Code of Conduct for Executive Search includes the following reference to defining search briefs:
“In defining briefs, search firms should work to ensure that significant weight is given to relevant skills and intrinsic personal qualities and not just proven career experience, in order to extend the pool of candidates beyond those with existing board roles or conventional corporate careers.”
Excellent narrative, so let’s see it in action.
Diversity recruitment requires more specialist knowledge, cultural sensitivity, bias awareness and insight and a different way of recruiting that takes people out of their comfort zone and into making perhaps slightly more risky appointments, at least by the traditional selection criteria. The risk and reward balance however means that unless the action is taken and change is more than cosmetic, then diversity achievements will continue to fall short of targets and all the narrative about diversity successes will continue to be unrepresentative of reality. Change in business culture is often well supported as long as it is others who make the change and not too much turbulence is felt in going through the change.
There is enough demonstrable research proving that women have the necessary leadership skills, that unconscious bias has excessive influence on recruitment and promotion decisions, and that diversity per se has positive bottom line impact. The job of recruitment in an open and free marketplace is to match skills and abilities with resource needs and future potential, but the supply side of the equation is being constrained and talent lost as a consequence of underlying biases.
Awareness of the impact of taking a career break contributes, I would contend, to the pressure on women to remain in their career while raising a family, with the additional stresses and costs that this often entails. This is not to deny of course that many women prefer to remain in career while raising a family and many would also prefer to establish their own business rather than return to corporate life. But I really wonder whether, in a change to a culture where career breaks taken out of necessity were much more accepted by recruiters and employers, women (and men) would be more prepared to break away to dedicate time to family and other necessities, and then return and resume their careers in a pragmatic way.
Family friendly policies by employers and a more pragmatic approach to career breaks from recruiters will smooth the transition back into career. This will make a great contribution to not only retaining talent in the workforce, but to improving the proportion of women on boards and in leadership and ensuring taking advantage of the diversity of perspective and thought that improves business performance.
In a recent global report by Grant Thornton, Women in Business, it revealed that senior female leaders are more likely to have worked as a more junior member of staff at their current company compared with their male counterparts. A much smaller proportion of women in senior leadership have achieved the position through recruitment than do men. Rather than merely espouse about diversity of thought and perspective being great attributes in employment, recruiters need to apply some diversity of thought to their own recruitment practices in order to give diverse candidates a fair chance of getting in the frame in the first place.