Five Top Challenges for Women Returning to the Workforce
Rachelle J. Canter, Ph.D.
Getting your confidence back - The emotional intelligence research shows that women are significantly less confident than men; women out of the workforce have added challenges of wondering if their skills and accomplishments have a shelf life that has expired or whether they can compete effectively once they've gotten off the treadmill.
Translating your accomplishments - Women have a harder time selling themselves than men do even under the best of circumstances. Women are more uncomfortable touting their accomplishments or even seeing their accomplishments as something special. They tend to talk about "we did this," rather than claiming credit individually and they tend to deprecate their accomplishments, "Oh, it wasn't that big a deal." Women much more than men believe that good work speaks for itself, and the very idea of "selling" is unseemly. But the truth is that people speak, work doesn't.
Translating your contributions into quantifiable accomplishments is hard for any job-seeker, but especially for someone who has been out of the workforce. It's hard, but it's also imperative: Look for specific contributions with quantified results on your former job, as well as with any volunteer or part-time work you may have done while away from your career. If you organized a successful fundraiser for your child's school, raising 50% more than in prior years, say so. Accomplishments build your case for your next job, no matter where you've been recently.
Dropping your self-defeating stories - Women who have been out of the workforce and are vulnerable to the self-defeating stories that they tell themselves and others tell them about how hard or impossible it will be to reenter the work force. What are the most popular stories that women tell themselves?
  1. My skills and knowledge are out of date - who is going to hire me?
  2. I cannot market myself.
  3. I'm not the contributor I used to be, so I'll have to settle for what I can get.
Although there are plenty of stories out there in the media about difficulties people face in reentering the work force and all of us know people who have experienced such difficulties, the main limitations women face in pursuing their dreams and goals of getting back to work are self-imposed, by stories they tell themselves about how their own skills, knowledge, marketing abilities, and potential contributions are lacking or less than they were, should be, or must be. All these negative stories reinforce poor self-confidence, diminish women's professional demeanor and self-presentation, decrease their efforts to find the right job, and lead them to settle for jobs and salaries that are below their capabilities.
Getting your foot in the door -- When you've been out of the workforce, it can be especially difficult to get a prospective employer's attention but with the help of people who know how intelligent, hard-working, and dedicated you are, you have the chance you need to show why you are the best hire. Women executives at the top of their game have difficulty using their networks in this way; women who have been away from the workforce are especially hesitant to use their networks, doubting their contributions as well as unsure about whether this is a misuse of their contacts.
Finding a good employer - The most traditional male-dominated companies and industries are less likely to be successful targets for women returning to the workplace. Annual lists such as "Best Companies for Women" and publications like Working Mother are a great place to identify companies with family-friendly policies, larger numbers of women managers and executives - companies, in other words, more receptive to life/work balance and emphasizing the importance of women in the workplace.
Five Top Misconceptions Women Have About Returning to the Workforce
Your new job is not on the internet -- Despite the attention given to job websites, the fact is that the vast majority of jobs are still filled by using your contacts not the internet. Putting your time on the highest yield strategies is one important path to a new job.
A recruiter is not going to find a job for you - Another common misconception is that recruiters work for job-seekers. Recruiters work for the companies that hire them to fill vacancies and they are generally looking for round pegs for round holes - in other words, highly traditional candidates, NOT a woman who has been out of the workforce. Put your emphasis on your network where people can provide endorsements and introductions that can open doors for you. Recruiters are highly unlikely to open doors for women returning to the workforce.
Updating your old resume is pointless -- Updating your resume is not the goal, transforming it is. The traditional resume filled with job descriptions is not what will catch an employer's eye, certainly not with a gap in employment. If you can present your work achievements in hard-hitting terms, your achievements will impress an employer, not any gaps in your employment.
Using your network is not unseemly, it's essential - There is plenty of evidence that women don't do a good job of professional networking. Why is this so, when women are excellent at building friendships? Because women believe that using a relationship for a business purpose, like an introduction to an employer, information about an industry or company, or endorsement is a misuse of a relationship. Women need to learn what men have always known: that your network is your most powerful asset in landing a new job, a source of introductions, information, and endorsements that can be invaluable in helping you back into the workforce.
Luck has nothing to do with it - effort does. The evidence shows that the more time you devote to your job search, the faster you are likely to be reemployed. If you think reentering the workforce is a matter of luck, you have less incentive to work at it. If you are waiting for a lucky break, you could be waiting a very long time. By getting out there with your network (which includes the husbands and partners of your women friends, many of whom are employed and likely to be good sources of contacts, referrals, and jobs), you take the first important steps to getting back to work.
Five First Steps for Women Reentering the Workforce
Determine your "right job right now" -- what makes for the right job for you at this stage of your life and career? Define your target precisely.
Build your strongest case for your target job with an accomplishment-oriented resume. You need your "A" game to reenter the workforce and you can do this with a resume that emphasizes specific contributions and results you've made on the job or in the community. It will also build your self-confidence as your accomplishments remind you of what you have to offer.
Define the facts about your career (competitive advantages) that show why you are the right person for a particular employer or opportunity.
Focus your job search on your network (not the internet or recruiters).
Act self-confidently to build self-confidence. The psychological evidence shows that the best way to build self-confidence is behave in a self-confident manner and your beliefs about yourself will change in line with your behavior. If you are afraid to get out there, take the advice of an female executive client of mine whose career had known many ups and downs and who was a mentor to other women. If you are afraid to get out there, then do it afraid. Your behavior will change your attitudes.