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‘Will I be able to get back in?’ Women still face stigma over career breaks

It is women who are worst affected by the negative attitude to time off, study finds

Fifteen years ago Sharon McCooey, head of LinkedIn in Ireland, took a career break to be at home with her young family. She was in a senior management role at the time and thought long and hard before stepping back because of the implications for her career.

Fast forward to 2022 and, according to recent research from McCooey’s organisation, things haven't changed much. In a new study by LinkedIn looking at women’s experience in the workplace, more than 60 per cent of respondents said there was still a stigma attached to taking a career break, with a fifth saying their professional progression was hindered by taking time out.

For many organisations, gaps in a CV are still a cause for concern and McCooey thinks it’s high time this outdated thinking went the way of the dinosaurs. To help it get there, LinkedIn has drawn up a list of 13 reasons for taking career breaks that people can now add to their professional profiles on its platform. These include caregiving, bereavement, layoff and career transition.

“The idea is to give members a new way to reflect breaks from their career with a view to normalising flexible careers and career-break options, and helping those who’ve taken career breaks stand out for the life experiences they’ve built during their time away,” McCooey says.

“We are also encouraging members to share what flexible working means to them and how it has supported their career. We know from the level of discussion about flexible working on our platform over the last while that this is something employees really want.

“The research shows that 20 per cent of women have had to choose between childcare and their career, and we believe this needs to change. We are encouraging employers to listen to their employees, because ultimately what’s good for employees is good for the business. It’s a virtuous circle.”

LinkedIn is putting its money where its mouth is by offering a series of courses to support flexibility and inclusivity in the workplace. The courses are free and will run until the end of May. Topics covered include negotiating work flexibility and planning for family leave and returning to the workplace.

In McCooey’s view, a tangible disconnect is emerging between employers and their female employees when it comes to perceptions about flexible working policies.

Flexible work

Over 80 per cent of the research sample (1,000-plus employees and over 500 hiring managers) said the pandemic has made flexible working an imperative. However, one in five have had their request for flexible working turned down while half have had to take a pay cut to work flexibly with no reduction in hours.

“We want women to be able to make career decisions on their own terms and to position a career break as the professional asset it truly is. Yet what we’re seeing is a significant cohort of women who have considered leaving or have left their role because of lack of flexibility and prevailing attitudes,” McCooey says.

“In my own case, my two children were just 18 months apart and life was a constant juggling act as both my partner and I were travelling a lot for work. However, making the decision to take the break was still very difficult because I absolutely loved my job and at the back of my mind was the big worry that if I left would I be able to get back in?”

"My break was for three years – short enough because that underlying worry was still there – and during that time I did some consulting work with PwC on a part-time basis. But people should be able to take the time they need and not feel pressured into returning before they're ready. This is the discussion we want to ignite."

McCooey is a good example of a someone whose career break turned out well. When she returned to the workplace full-time, she landed a job with LinkedIn, which was only starting out at the time.

“It was a fantastic opportunity as I had a roving brief and was involved in setting up offices across Asia-Pacific, Europe and in Brazil. It was a really exciting time to be with the company and to see it grow and go from strength to strength,” she says.

An interesting nugget to come out of the LinkedIn research is that flexible working is a more pressing issue for women than for men. Just under half the women in the sample said it was important to be allowed the freedom to tailor working arrangements to their own needs, compared with 29 per cent of men.

Mental health

Asked what two things their organisations could do to make their working lives easier, women identified an increase in annual leave, and flexible start and finish times as the top priorities. They also saw improved wellbeing and mental health as the other desirable benefits of flexible working.

With most companies just over two months back in the office, McCooey says the process of defining what the future of work will look like is evolving on a daily basis.

“People were at home for over two years and had a system worked out for that. Now they’re back some, if not all, of the time and they’re still working out their schedules and finding their new norms. I think it’s going to take at least until the end of the year for this to settle down.”

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