Friday, 27 March 2015

Challenging the stereotypes about returning professionals

This week I wrote an article for the Guardian Women in Leadership challenging the stereotypical views of women returners and urging employers to recognise the strong talent pool they are overlooking:

My aim was to highlight & question the attitude of so many corporate employers who reject those of you with a long CV gap purely because of their unconscious biases, in particular against women without recent experience. I hoped that it would make at least a few hiring employers question their stereotypes and be more open to considering returners as a result.

It has been great to see how this message has been spread on social media. The article has been shared nearly 1200 times around the world and picked up by Hearst Women who wrote a supportive piece:
Sharon Hodgson MP wrote on Twitter "As a returner I went on to become an MP! A career break should not be a career end!"

If you are one of the women experiencing rejection through conventional recruitment routes, we hope that the article does not make you feel more dispirited, but helps you to understand that it is not your personal failing - many other people are in your position. Remember that there are other ways to find a fulfilling business role, in particular using your network and building experience through freelance, voluntary or temporary roles. There are also increasing numbers of business employers who want to use returnships to bring you back.

We will continue to champion the abilities of returning professionals, to change employer perceptions and create routes back to fulfilling work so a career break is seen as a pause not an end to a corporate career.

Posted by Julianne

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Five ways to build your back-to-work networks

Why networking is important for a back-to-work job search

We talk regularly about the importance of networking as one of the key routes to get back to work after a long career break. The value of networking has really been brought home to me by two recent experiences. 

First of all, two highly experienced and qualified women who have successfully returned to work, one in investment banking and the other to a senior corporate role, told me how unhelpful headhunters were when they approached them. This included headhunters with whom they previously had relationships during their pre-break careers. The banker (who is now happily employed at Credit Suisse following a placement on the Real Returns programme) was told that her career break of 11 years was too long for the headhunter to place her. She was advised that the only way to find a role would be through her own network.

Separately in a meeting I attended to learn more about a new and growing professional women's network, my contact told me about two roles that she was trying to fill, in a discreet way, that might be suitable for a returner. These two roles are examples of the true 'hidden job market' that really does exist: often managers want to make a hire quickly, quietly, inexpensively and without lots of administration. They rely on their networks to do this as they view their own contacts as reliable and credible sources of talented candidates.

Five ways to build your networks

To access the hidden job market and circumvent unhelpful headhunters you need to get networking. Networking doesn't simply consist of walking into a room full of strangers and introducing yourself. More broadly, networking provides you with opportunities to connect with people who have similar interests, talents and concerns that you have. Through your engagement with them you will have opportunities to learn about potential roles and to talk about your own search. Ways to start making these contacts include joining any of the following:

  1. Membership organisations that match your professional interests. Networks exist for people with interests ranging from hedge funds to horticulture, oil engineering to oriental languages. These organisations commonly have informative newsletters, speaker events and training opportunities
  2. Relevant LinkedIn groups where you can initiate or contribute to discussions. In this way, you'll learn more about the issues that are current, raise your profile in the group and gain openings to contact people directly
  3. Alumni groups. All universities and business schools and many employers and secondary schools have these in place, as they recognise the value of a long-term relationship with you. Many of these groups actively encourage members to talk to each other for employment advice
  4. Professional associations. If you have a professional qualification, your accrediting body will also have a useful network as well as offering other career support
  5. Informal networks. Aside from these formal routes, you can make valuable connections through broadening or taking a more active role in social or community activities - a community group, a volunteer organisation, a school parent body, a religious community. We rarely know who our local networks are connected to and the 'hidden jobs' they might know about. 
As you build these connections, remember to talk to them about your background and what you are looking for, so that they will be able to help you. For your networking to be effective you have to be clear and convincing about the role you are seeking. See our previous post on Telling your Story if you are unsure how to do this.

For more advice on networking, see our previous posts
Do I really have to network?
Top tips for enjoyable networking
LinkedIn - an essential tool for your return to work

Posted by Katerina

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

One company's mission to provide new career paths for returning lawyers: the founder's view

I have long been concerned by the vast disparity between the number of women who enter the legal sector and the percentage of women who rise to the top of the profession. It is clear to me that there is one large, contributing factor, which is becoming less and less of an ‘elephant in the room’, and one which increasingly the sector needs to tackle. Women in particular, and parents more generally, who wish to combine a legal career with other commitments, most notably having a family, have been leaving the profession in the face of a constant struggle to balance work with life. The attrition rates speak for themselves – women have left, and continue to leave, the profession in droves. We know why they are leaving and so the key question is how can we, as an industry, stem this flow?

In 2010 I went on a trip to India to research my next entrepreneurial move. Whilst there, I witnessed a trend of outsourcing to offshore destinations which left me puzzled and frustrated given the amount of legal talent which lay dormant right here in the UK. This gave me a business idea, and thus Obelisk Support was born. I could see that we can offer a route back into the profession for exceptionally talented lawyers by allowing them to work flexibly. By tapping into this wasted talent pool, Obelisk Support could compete with offshore destinations on quality, flexibility, price and efficiency in its work with large multinational corporations and City law firms.

The last 4 years have not been an easy ride – and I did face something of an uphill battle in trying to convince clients that women could work flexibly, often remotely, without compromising on the quality of their delivery. But, the stories of our lawyers (80% of whom are female, many of them returning from a career break) who have succeeded in working flexibly around their family and other commitments is testament to the shifting attitudes of the legal industry (and, admittedly, four years of hard work from the Obelisk Support team).

Seeing the work coming through the pipeline and clients returning positive feedback on our lawyers’ work, some of whom never thought they would earn again by doing legal work, fills me with great pride. And so it is that I measure our success by the success of our lawyers.  Our success is best portrayed by the individual stories of the lawyers we have placed.

The stories are many and underpin just why we have become known as the legal business with a heart. Jane qualified at a top law firm, where she practiced for 13 years, before taking a 10 year career break whilst she started a family. After such a long break, re-entering the profession can be daunting. However, through Obelisk, Jane is now working for a large bank. She works remotely from home, for an average of 22.5 hours a week, all fitting around her other commitments.

Annie, who has a younger family, was able to work around her family commitments, working mostly from home and for around 5 hours a day. In Annie’s own words, working with Obelisk has benefited her enormously ‘both personally and professionally’.

Karina moved to Chile, but was keen to stay in full-time work. We secured her a full-time placement supporting a large telecommunications company in Ireland, where she was able to work completely remotely from home.

We really do put the client and lawyer at the heart of our legal solutions, and this is demonstrated by the unique way in which we approach each client and consultant, taking into account the needs of both parties and tailoring an efficient solution. My vision when I started Obelisk Support was to enable women like Jane, Annie and Karina to do the work they love, without having to make impossible compromises. That they have been able to do so, whilst simultaneously delivering exemplary service to large multinationals and law firms, should demonstrate to the legal profession that flexibility can, and does, work. 

Guest post by Dana Denis Smith, founder of Obelisk Support

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Making your own choice on the working/stay-at-home mother decision

Daily Mail report this week that only 1 in 10 women are stay-at-home mothers, together with the judge's ruling in a recent divorce case that a mother should 'get a job' once her children are seven, have reignited the debate about whether mothers 'should' be at home with their children or remain in the workforce. We're at a strange point in history where there seems to be pressure both ways: a longstanding societal push, reinforced by some parts of the media, to be an at-home mother and a corresponding push from Government and other parts of the media to keep mothers working. Mothers are squeezed in the middle, torn as to the 'right thing' to do and feeling judged whatever path they take.

I hear these mixed messages played out on the personal level as well, from the mothers I work with. Some women feel pressure from partners/parents/friends to give total attention to the family, while others feel pushed to get back to work. And we then have our own internal ambiguity: "I'm being selfish and ungrateful if I want to work and leave my children" vs. "I'm wasting my education and sponging off my partner if I stay at home". It's not surprising that so many mothers feel guilty whatever they do.

What I'd love to tell all mothers wrestling with your work-home choices, either post maternity or career break, is this: There is no universal RIGHT answer. This is a time in your life when you need to acknowledge all the internal & external pressures you are experiencing, and then decide what is the best choice for you and your family, dependent on your desires and your personal circumstances (which can also change over time).

If you have no real choice and need the income, then avoid the 'pro-full-time mum' press, focus on managing your work-home balance, read our articles on how to ditch the guilt and stop labelling yourself as selfish. 

If you do have a choice, then focus on deciding what you want to do, not agonising over what you 'should' do. There are many options: working as an employee full-time/part-time/flexibly, setting up your own business, going freelance, pausing your career with a clear strategy to return later, or being an at-home mother. And it's fine to chop and change over the years as you create a life balance that works for you.

Personally, I was taken aback by the pull I felt to stay at home for a few years when my kids were small - I'd always pictured myself as someone who would never take a break. Being at home suited me best in the early years but after four years I was desperate to engage my brain again in other interests and went back to university to retrain, doing some consultancy alongside. I then worked part-time and grew my own business, working longer hours as my children got older. Many of my friends and colleagues had different experiences; from those who were very happy get back to full-time work after maternity leave to those have remained at home until their children are much older and are only now considering how they can find their way back into work. 

There is no single and perfect solution. But you'll know you've made the best choice for you when most of the time you feel (fairly) satisfied with your life and rarely feel frustrated and stuck in a place where you don't want to be. And if you don't feel satisfied, that's when you need to make a change, not when other people say you should.

Posted by Julianne