While women are making more strides than ever in business and leadership, there’s no denying women also continue to face unique challenges in the workplace. From negotiating a pay raise, to being taken as seriously as male peers in the conference room, many women find the challenges they face are subtle but stubborn.
Another workplace dilemma arises when a woman starts thinking about kids. For a number of complicated reasons, when it comes to having and raising kids, women's careers are generally impacted more than men's. Whether they take a short maternity leave or a couple years off to raise kids, many face a challenge ahead known as "the comeback." After spending years away from their field, some find it remarkably daunting to imagine being competitive again in the professional world.
This phenomenon has reached such significance that it's become the premise of a TV show. In the comedy Younger (which was picked up for a third season), Sutton Foster plays a 40-year-old mom named Liza, who after losing her money, house, and husband to gambling, returns to the workforce and finds it easier to get a job pretending to be a 26-year-old than explaining her résumé gap. In real women's lives, though, it's not as hilarious as comedy TV. According to a new book, The Comeback: How Today’s Moms Reenter the Workplace Successfully by Cheryl Casone, it doesn’t have to be this way. Casone, a reporter and anchor at Fox Business Network who focuses on jobs and the economy, interviewed hundreds of working moms to learn lessons from their successes and failures.
“With a little planning, forethought, and even imagination,” she writes, “you can stay at home with your children as long as you like and still be prepared to jump back into the workforce should you ever decide it’s the right thing to do.” Here are just a few surprising insights I gathered from reading this recent book.
01. Planning for a workplace comeback is like buying insurance.
For many women, having kids is like starting the next chapter of their post-work lives. Some might even have a vision of marriage that involves having their husband provide while they stay at home. For some, this works out exactly as imagined. But, according to Casone, “The most surprising thing I found as I researched this book [was this]: the majority of women I interviewed who planned to never return to work did.” More than half only returned to the workforce “because they had to.” Whether their husband died, divorced, or got laid off, more and more women are facing a need to bring home the bacon.
While everyone likes to think their marriage and future will go as well as they imagined, the sad reality is that if something beyond their control happens to their spouse or security, women are much more vulnerable to poverty. This is why Casone recommends that every woman plan ahead—starting now—for the possibility of a future career comeback.
“It’s like having insurance. You may never need it, but wouldn’t it be better—for you and your family—to be prepared?” she says. For this reason, Casone recommends every working woman prepare in advance for a future career comeback whether she think it's in her cards or not.
From crafting a killer LinkedIn profile to strategic networking that keeps you in touch with former and possible future colleagues, Casone's book offers step-by-step advice that will give women more options down the road, no matter what twists and turns come along.
02. Working moms often have to work harder to avoid ‘the motherhood penalty.’
It's no secret that women have to navigate complex social mores in the workplace. “Quite simply, women are held to a different standard than men in the workplace,” Casone notes. “We can’t be too nice lest we come across as pushovers, but we can’t be too assertive lest we be accused of being difficult. We are more frequently interrupted in meetings and have to fight harder to make our ideas heard. We have to prove ourselves in ways that our male counterparts just don’t. And if you’re a mom—any mom—the bias you face can be even greater. There’s actually a term for it: the motherhood penalty.”
“There are many fair and family-friendly employers and companies out there,” she caveats, “yet there are still a lot who might assume (maybe even subconsciously, because that’s often how bias works) that because you have children, you will be less committed, productive, and effective than someone who does not.”
One woman Casone interviewed for the book shared that twenty-five years ago, when she informed her boss she was taking maternity leave, he replied, “Lucky you. I’d sure love to go put my feet up for a few months, too.” (As it happens, this couldn’t be farther from the truth of what maternity leave is actually like.)
But what’s refreshing about Casone’s book is that instead of bemoaning the injustice and wallowing in mom-pity, she equips her readers with advice for how to prove themselves that much more in the workplace. “Only you know the biases and double standards of your industry,” she says. “Don’t ever assume they won’t be used against you.” Educate and prepare yourself.
03. Moms don’t need to choose between two separate identities.
Casone advises that even if you decide you want to take a break from your professional career to have a family, “act as though you’ve got your eye on the corner office.” Yes—”even if you already know deep in your heart that you want to be a stay-at-home mom someday.” She says this because for one, “it is only right to give your coworkers and supervisors your best, but also because you just never know. It could take you a while to get pregnant.” Or, for some women, to even find Mr. Right. “There are many reasons why you should want to make yourself indispensable,” she writes. Do your best at what you’re doing, and let yourself shine.
Also, even for moms who decide to stay at home with kids for a significant amount of time, Casone enumerates ways one can keep abreast of your industry with minimal time and effort. Sign up for your industry’s magazines to read the latest developments; read the news; keep some contact with past colleagues. Your pre-baby and post-baby lives don’t have to be completely separate.
04. Kids with working moms actually reap some benefits.
We often hear the benefits of moms who stay at home with their kids long term, but we also know it’s not always a good fit or even a possibility for every family. But will going back to work somehow hurt the kids' development and sense of parental commitment? As it happens, kids raised by working moms also experience benefits too—and ones you might not have heard of.
“Daughters of moms who work grow up to be more successful in the workplace than their peers,” Casone cites. “They make more money and they often end up being bosses. Sons of moms who work grow up to be dads who take a more active role with child care and chores in their households.” Sounds pretty awesome to me! And so it’s no surprise, “the children of working moms grow up with a more egalitarian view on gender roles.” Not too shabby.
05. Motherhood can be good job training for the future.
Casone states early in the book, “Anyone who thinks being a stay-at-home mom is easy has never been one. It’s a job that demands the patience of a teacher, the organizing skills of a wedding planner, the financial savvy of an accountant, and the protective instincts of a police officer.”
All the same, Casone notes, “So many of the women I spoke with for this book told me that when they first decided to go back to work, they felt they had nothing to offer, nothing to give, and that corporations wouldn’t value them.” But after returning to work, “they found for the most part that the exact opposite was true, and that the multitasking, juggling, and child care that comes with stay-at-home motherhood amounted to the best training ever when dealing with cranky bosses, ungrateful clients, and immature co-workers."
One of the women interviewed in the book, Dolores, shared these words of wisdom: “Be prepared to work extra-hard to prove yourself—you’ll live up to your potential given the chance. You’re used to doing everything at home. Just do that at work too. Juggle fast, stay calm, and hide any exhaustion. Focus on the productive.” This doesn’t make us less capable but more so, for whatever endeavors we pursue.
Overall what makes The Comeback such a refreshing read is its empowering sense of encouragement. "Women are 50 percent of the population," Casone says, reminding us of our power. "We make the majority of the household buying decisions. It is in every company’s best interest to listen to mothers and take advantage of their collective clout, skills, wisdom, and insight. Remember that every time you go for an interview."
Following Casone's advice in The Comeback, you will be well-equipped to leave and get back into the field almost seamlessly—and, unlike Liza in Younger, without having to pretend you’re 26 again.
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