Wednesday 16 October 2013

Where are the role models of successful women returners?

"Is it really possible to get back into work after I've been out so long? I don't know anyone who's done it apart from a few friends who have retrained as teachers."

Janice's comment echoes the feeling of many women I talk to who are thinking about going back after a long career break. We look around and the world seems to divide between friends and colleagues who have never taken a long break and those who are on a career break and are not showing much inclination to return to the workplace. "Do you know of any finance directors (lawyers/marketing managers/...) who have successfully returned to work after many years out?" is a question we're often asked. If you don't know any examples of women similar to yourself who have made the transition back to fulfilling work, you can start to question if it is possible.

Why don't I know more role models of successful returners?

Partly it's a question of timing. Before the 1980's there just weren't that many professional women (eg. in 1971 4% of UK lawyers were female; in 2009 it was 43%*). The 1970's 'career women' were less likely to give up their hard-won professions to care for their children or elderly parents. It was the highly-qualified women who began their working lives in the more equal 1980's, or later, who felt confident enough in the 1990's and 2000's to take extended career breaks. So it was only in the mid 2000's that the phenomenon of professional women returners started to be noticed in the US**. As we are still in the early days of finding routes back in to the workplace, it is not surprising that examples of successful returners can seem few and far between. This doesn't mean you can't find them, it just means you have to look a bit harder.

Why is it important for us to have role models? (the psychology bit)

According to psychologist Albert Bandura's social cognitive theory, having role models has a major effect on our belief in our ability to succeed in a certain situation (our 'self-efficacy'). If we see people similar to ourselves succeeding in what we want to do, then we are more likely to believe we have the capabilities to do this too and to cope with inevitable setbacks. If we have a weak sense of self-efficacy we quickly lose confidence in our abilities, become more negative and are more likely to give up on our goals. 

Where can I find more role models?
  1. Ask your friends/colleagues if they know anyone who has returned to work after a long break and who seems to be happy and fulfilled with their work-life. 
  2. Check your LinkedIn contacts: some people list 'career break' as a role. 
  3. I think that the many success stories on the US iRelaunch website are one of the best sources of 'Look it can be done' inspiration. 
  4. As Katerina & I thought it would be great to have a bank of UK successes, we are starting to collect UK returner stories which we will include on our website. 
Do you know any women professionals who have successfully returned to work ... or are you a possible role model yourself? If so do get in touch. We're not just looking for the high-flying returners, more a range of women who are back at work and happy with the work-family choices they have made.

* Alison Wolf, The XX Factor, 2013 ** Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Off-Ramps & On-Ramps, 2007

Posted by Julianne

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