With a not-so-generous 45 days' paid maternity leave as standard across the UAE, it's no wonder many new mums feel that taking a clean break from work is their only option. For those who have spent years building up a career, clocking up overtime and adding value to a business, this can sting a bit. Even if you prefer to be at home with your little ones during those precious first months and years, when the time is right, it can make getting back to work more challenging than expected.
Furthermore, there's a whole host of talented women who have spent even longer away from the office to raise their brood but, now the kids have grown, are eager to return. For them, a slightly different set of factors comes into play - namely finding the confidence to pick it all up again.
On average, 77 per cent of mums in the UAE who have taken time out from their careers to have children are keen to get back to work, according to a recent survey conducted by recruitment portal Mums@Work in association with YouGov.
The biggest barrier, however, is a lack of flexible options, with more than 38 per cent of women claiming that they simply couldn't juggle family and workplace commitments.
The good news is that the tide is turning in our favour. The effects of the UAE's commitment to gender equality and diversity are starting to shine through.
"It's great to see how many senior positions women and, more to the point, women with children hold in the UAE," says Louise Karim, managing director of Mums@Work (www.mumsatwork.ae), which specialises in finding part-time, flexible working options for mums. "There is a wealth of women in this market who have taken time off to raise their children and, after either a short or extended break, are not sure of the best route back to their chosen profession that will also suit their family."
It's something Helen McGuire, CEO of MCG Group of Companies and co-founder of flexible work recruiter Hopscotch (www.hopscotch.ae), understands only too well. "After a stint of maternity leave last summer, I had the chance to mix with so many super-smart women who felt frustrated that they no longer had opportunities in the workplace," she says. "They were more than willing to be a dedicated resource and put their knowledge and skills to much-needed use, but due to family commitments, an ongoing full-time role was not an option."
On a positive note, a recent survey showed that 92 per cent of MCG Groups' key clients require employees who work non-traditional hours as part of their workforce and 80 per cent encourage flexible approaches to time and location management by their employees.
"Our research over the past six months shows there's a huge appetite on both sides," stresses Helen. With employers from a range of sectors wising up to more inclusive ways of working, it's finally getting easier to find your way back.
Adapting to the new normal
Before you start applying for roles, it's essential to have an honest conversation with your partner and those in your support network about what your expectations are and how you want it to work.
"It's important to weigh up the challenges and rewards of going back to full- or part-time employment after having children," says Racha Alkhawaja, head of institutional coverage at Menacorp and partner at Reach (www.reachmentoring.org). "Communicating with your partner is crucial. Caring for your children is the responsibility of both parents and you should share the workload pro rata according to working hours. If your husband works longer hours, he will have less to do less with the children, for instance, but his involvement and support are still vital. If you have family close by, see if they are willing to offer support on sick days if they arise. Also communicate clearly with your nanny or helper, if you have one, about your expectations. Prepare a timetable and be clear about your needs as well as your children's and stick to the rules."
You don't have to worry about starting completely from scratch, as the new wave of recruiters will help you through the application and interview process.
"We are here to guide, mentor and ensure women have the skills and confidence they need to get the jobs they want," says Louise. "We want to make sure that women have the choices and right working hours to suit their families."
When you are called for an interview, as well as swatting up on the role, be prepared to tackle some lifestyle questions, should they arise.
"Some more male-dominated industries may be more difficult to return to due to the mostly inaccurate assumption that a working mum will constantly want to attend swimming galas, school plays and nurse sick children," says Emily Christensen, director of H3O international recruitment and founder of Facebook page Part-time Jobs for Mums and Dads (Facebook.com/dubaiparttime). "Make a plan for your return so that you are armed with responses should you be asked in an interview. Technically this shouldn't happen, but occasionally in the UAE interviewers can be more direct."
Making a career comeback
Those who have taken an extended career break to raise kids may have additional barriers to break. "Confidence is possibly the biggest hurdle to women heading back after an extended break," says Emily. "You may worry about what has changed since you left, particularly if you are from a systems-based environment. You may have to take refresher exams depending on the career you wish to return to, which can be quite daunting if you are out of practice with studying."
The best way to boost your self-belief is by steadily building up your knowledge and insight.
"If you plan to return to not just the same industry, but the same company one day, it makes sense to keep up with the company's progress," advises Emily. "Following them on social media, maybe keeping in touch with former colleagues and meeting up with them and keeping an eye on their job pages will all make it easier to reach out to them when you wish to return."
If you're still keen on the same industry but open to new employers, make sure you follow the business pages and industry news to stay current.
"Reading articles posted by peers on LinkedIn and following the market is very helpful, as is spending a few minutes every day on your LinkedIn profile," she adds. "Work on your CV, too. Add skills that you have accumulated during your time off. Volunteer work, PTA and helping with projects in the classroom will help to fill a CV 'gap'."
For those who want to switch it up completely, a whole new journey is inevitable. "A career switch at any time can be challenging and to do this after a career break can be difficult," says Emily. "If the new career requires certain qualifications rather than just experience then these must be obtained and, as long as you are prepared to go into your new profession at entry level, you should be fine. If, however, you wish to just switch to something else without going through an educational institute, it may be a good idea to see a career guide in order to find common skills between those required in your previous experience and those needed for the new role, and who can possibly get you into a company on an intern-type plan in order for you to gain some practical experience."
Back in the game
When you've found a new role that suits you, be prepared to juggle like a pro.
"It is important to be aware that emergencies do happen and they will disrupt your schedule," says Racha. "Embrace them, but make sure you sit down with your line manager and have an open discussion about the fact that you are committed to your career and to producing results and that, if emergencies occur or you need to be absent for whatever reason, you are happy to make up the time for it.
"Also, listen to your manager's expectations and come to some middle ground if you don't see eye to eye on all points. Ask your line manager to meet with you once a month or quarterly and review your production at work and discuss if there's room for improvement while taking your circumstances into consideration."
When school holidays come around you need a clear plan of action.
"School holidays have always created a dilemma for mothers, mainly because we believe our children need us all day, every day, but this is just guilt talking," says Racha. "Children, especially those living in Dubai, have exponentially more friends, toys and entertainment options, such as holiday camps, in this day and age than we ever did. If your children are old enough to understand, sit down and explain to them that you are working as it makes you feel fulfilled and, while you love them more than any job, that mummy needs to be happy too. If that means you can't be at home throughout the entire school holidays, offer to take your kids to a special event or playdate at the weekend for some quality time together. Create excitement around it and don't make it into an issue."
While managing a career with family is a constant balancing act, the first step back to work is often the hardest and as the UAE becomes a more viable destination in which to pursue flexible, part-time work, we can all look forward to making the transition that much more smoothly.