Returning to the workplace after any kind of break is not easy - and I should know. I recently returned to full-time work after taking some time out following the birth of my son, Charlie, now 22 months. And, despite the fact that my transition back to work has been gradual (at home, I've been lucky enough to juggle part-time freelance writing with parenting duties thus far), rediscovering my professional self has been a difficult journey.
"I wasn't sure I even remembered who 'office me' was before she got buried under a stack of dirty babygros."
For the past two years, my working week has been a chaotic mix of rhythm and rhyme sessions, typing on my laptop in pyjamas stained with sweet potato puree, and conducting phone interviews while my toddler naps - a far cry from the glam world of magazine publishing I left behind. However, as my husband and I increasingly felt the financial pinch of not having two full-time salaries coming in, I've had to make some changes. Namely, leaving my cosy baby bubble (and beloved PJs) behind to go out and pitch for new work and new clients in an office environment; which has been seriously scary. I wasn't sure I even remembered who 'office me' was before she got buried under a stack of dirty babygros. Post-motherhood, had my talent deserted me as quickly as my ability to wear heels and stay up later than ten o'clock? Did I have the confidence not only to relaunch myself into the working world full-time, but to leave my darling son in the hands of strangers at a crèche?
The Age Factor
As well as suffering a major moment of self-doubt, I was immediately struck by how much the media landscape had changed in the short time I'd been away from office life. Suddenly, at 38, I was pitching against a new generation of multimedia professionals, web-savvy bloggers and 'content curators'. Digital advances had changed the face of my industry while I'd been busy reading Stickman and The Gruffalo. I quickly realised I had to upskill, and so I enrolled in a series of professional courses to fill in the gaps in my CV; updating my digital and technical skills. It paid off and I'm now back working full-time as a commercial copywriter and enjoying the colleague experience again, but it's been a steep learning curve. And I'm not alone in feeling like a dinosaur in an industry I once dominated.
British expat Anita Mokarram, 40, is an executive assistant to the CEO of a large company. She recently returned to work after a five-year sabbatical at home with her two children. "I had previously worked for the same employer, an international oil and gas company, for ten years, and I had only ever had a handful of job interviews, so returning to the workplace at nearly 40 was daunting. The main issue I faced was discrimination regarding my age. A lot of the positions I was applying for had an age cap on them. This was something completely new to me. Also, as I had been out of the workplace for so long, this age-discrimination did not help my confidence levels."
The Confidence Gap
Archana Bhatia is Lead Skills Coach at Hopscotch, a Professional Women's Community in the UAE. She says: "I find that women aspiring to re-join the workforce mostly fear the less-than-flattering stereotypes that are perpetuated about women who take a break in career. They believe that they will be judged as being less committed and viewed as out of date with regards to trends in their area of work and technology. They are filled with self- doubt over whether they can hold a sensible conversation and network with professionals as the last few years have been spent mostly managing the home and children."
To overcome her fears, Anita decided to launch a two-pronged attack on the issues that were crippling her confidence: professionally, she brushed up on her interview skills, but on a personal level, she relied on those closest to her to give her the confidence boost she desperately needed. "I spoke to my close friends and family and they reminded me of all the wonderful things I had achieved in my life," says Anita. "It's really important to believe in yourself - and to remind yourself of your strengths and achievements." She adds: "I realised that being a stay-at-home mum and taking a career break isn't a weakness, but more of a secret weapon. Whilst I may have been out of the office environment, I was still negotiating, compromising, multitasking and dealing with strong-willed human beings!"
The Impossible Choice
For many women in the UAE, a career break is the only option, given the short maternity leave of 45 days in the private sector this country. Rochelle Pereira, 32, is a human resources professional from India. After initially going back to work after her two-month maternity leave finished, she took the drastic decision to quit. "When I got back to work from maternity leave, my daughter, Ava, was two months old. I was surviving on maybe two hours of sleep, had sore breasts because I couldn't breastfeed - I had to express during lunch time - and I really missed my baby". She adds, "Eventually, I decided to take an extended break when Ava was a year old. I felt like I was missing out on her formative years. We would only get to spend around an hour and a half together in the evening after I got home from work. We had to compress play time, bath time and dinner time into such a limited time frame. It got stressful some days, especially when I had a long day at work. I wanted my time spent with Ava to be happy and relaxing, not hurried and exhausting. I started contemplating quitting my job and staying home. It was a tough decision to make because I have always worked. Plus, we would be one income down. In the end, I decided it was time for a break because I would never get this time back."
Rochelle's is a common dilemma for working mothers in the UAE. "The biggest downside of the maternity leave rules in the UAE is that is imposes a 'forced choice' on the woman - work or child, but not both," says Archana.
Demoted for Flexibility
Eighteen months after quitting, when her daughter started nursery, Rochelle decided the time was right to return to work. "I started with a three-month temporary role last November. It was not in HR, my chosen field, but the working hours were shorter which suited family life. The industry change was a bit daunting," she adds. Rochelle's contract has since been extended three times but she has yet to land a permanent role at the right level in her chosen industry; a problem that is common among returnees.
"Research suggests that three out of five women return to a lower-skilled role than before their maternity"
"Research suggests that three out of five women return to a lower-skilled role than before their maternity," says Louise Karim from Mums@ Work, a UAE-based organisation dedicated to bringing talented women back to the workforce. "This could be due to choice, as often women don't want the pressure they had previously, or simply that they chose a lower level role as it's the only way to get more flexibility. Whilst this happens, I strongly believe you shouldn't have to choose, and companies need to nurture this talent and provide support to allow women to return at whatever level they chose." Louise adds: "This ties into the debate about the increase on flexible working, part-time roles and job sharing. To me, it's a massive loss to the economy and business growth if we see women stepping out of senior roles as they feel there is no choice between that and having a family."
3 ways to gear up your return to work
1. Sell Your Soft Skills
"Whether you're in paid or unpaid work you are always learning new skills," says Louise. "Multitasking, time management and risk assessment are all examples of the amazing skills that a mother hones. Also, don't forget that everything you knew before hasn't disappeared because you took a break. Your maturity, energy and enthusiasm are also fantastic traits any employer would be happy to have."
2. Utilise Your Network
"Reconnect with and network with people online who work in your industry. It provides a flavour of work routines, challenges and politics in your field, and, of course, potential job leads," says Archana. "Review CVs similar to your profile on LinkedIn to check yours meets the standard. Also, keep an eye on - and comment on - LinkedIn Groups for news of relevant industry seminars, networking meetings to stay updated." For help identifying your strengths, goals and to put a strategy in place, contact the 121 service at Hopscotch, email@example.com
3. Take the First Step
"Join a Return to Work program to showcase your commitment to rejoining the workforce," says Louise. "The Mums@Work career events can bring you back into career and work mode, allow you to network with women in the same situation as you and learn a thing or two!" For details of the next event, visit mumsatwork.ae
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