Returning to the workforce (2024)

Returning to the workforce (1)

Women are traditionally viewed as the cornerstone of families and communities, bearing the responsibility of nurturing, caring and providing support, often while also playing a crucial role in child development. Consequently, it’s common for women to take more career breaks than men.

But returning to a career after a hiatus can be challenging, as the work environment, mindset and processes may have changed. Resuming a professional journey can feel like a daunting task, prompting the need for assistance and support for women to re-establish themselves and progress up the career ladder once again.

Confidence boost

Anoji De Silva, chairperson of the Women’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce Sri Lanka and partner at EY Sri Lanka, says: ‘If you examine the reasons for women’s departure, it primarily revolves around childcare responsibilities. Women opt to leave the workforce to dedicate time to their children’s wellbeing. However, as their children grow older, they feel inclined to reintegrate into their careers.’

De Silva says the support needed varies depending on the duration of the career break and the role the returnee intends to fill. However, she emphasises the importance of ensuring these women feel comfortable, as a significant concern for them is often a lack of confidence.

She explains: ‘Many returning women were previously high achievers. However, upon re-entry, they often harbour doubts about their ability to perform at their former calibre. They perceive themselves as outdated, struggle to catch up, and feel intellectually inferior compared to their peers. Restoring their confidence becomes paramount.’

De Silva suggests implementing confidence-boosting strategies such as encouraging returners to initially work on a part-time basis. Subsequently offering short-term contracts allows them to acclimate to the work environment without feeling overwhelmed by all the changes that occurred during their absence.

If they wish to continue, the short-term contract can be extended. Conversely, if they find it overwhelming, they can gracefully exit the contract without feeling pressured or embarrassed.

De Silva’s sentiments are echoed by Gayani De Alwis, executive council member of the SAARC Chamber’s Women Entrepreneurs Council and founding member of the Sri Lanka chapter of the Women Corporate Directors Foundation. She says: ‘Some women may not be ready for full-time employment, especially when their children are young. Part-time and flexible working arrangements are becoming increasingly common. It could be worth exploring the creation of a portal, or similar platform, to connect women seeking to return to work on a part-time or flexible basis. In the post-Covid era, many companies offer roles that do not require full-time commitment or physical presence in the workplace.’

Feedback and training

De Silva stresses the importance of providing ‘guidance and training opportunities for women looking to re-enter the workforce, even before they return. Constant feedback is essential to help rebuild their confidence.’

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Meanwhile, De Alwis says it is crucial to reskill and upskill women seeking to rejoin the workforce. ‘Companies must take proactive steps. This includes providing necessary training and support, and placing them in roles with flexibility as their family responsibilities evolve. It’s important to address the career advancement gap that may occur due to time off and ensure an inclusive environment before addressing gender pay disparities.’

She adds that paternity leave is as important as maternity leave. ‘Nowadays, companies are expanding beyond traditional maternity leave. For instance, John Keells Group recently introduced 100 days of parental leave for both mothers and fathers. This promotes gender equality, encourages shared parental responsibilities, and sets a positive example for other companies to follow.’

Psychology of work

Shivalatha Sivasundaram, a corporate trainer and communications strategist, highlights the importance of understanding the psychology of individuals returning to work after a break. ‘You have to understand the psychology of the person coming from a break. They may have a bottled feeling of losing their freedom again.’

She urges leaders to be supportive and avoid making employees feel constrained. ‘Do not tighten the screws on them. Let them have freedom.’

She believes companies should provide assistance to ease individuals back into their roles. ‘Have them shadow a peer or someone they can share their responsibilities with until they get eased back into the system,’ she suggests.

A smooth transition and a gradual adjustment period are essential. ‘Do not push them into the deep water initially but ease them out with a shadow peer for one or two weeks,’ Sivasundaram says.

Chathini Uduwana, ambassador of the Sri Lanka chapter of Women in Tech, says the initiatives taken by some IT companies in Sri Lanka’s technology sector include ‘assuring women of job security upon their return from further studies or career changes. Even after maternity leave, some companies offer part-time work options to help mothers stay connected without losing touch. Those with the right skillset can quickly catch up. Internships and flexible programmes are encouraged to ease their transition.’

Flexibility

According to the World Economic Forum’s 2023 report, on current trends, the global gender gap in economic participation and opportunity will persist for another 169 years, a staggering increase from prepandemic forecasts. Failing to foster a supportive workplace environment for individuals returning from career breaks only exacerbates this disparity.

To bridge this gap, it is crucial for companies to understand the unique needs and mindsets of those seeking to re-enter the workforce. Organisations should focus on providing the necessary support and resources to help women returners advance in their careers. This approach not only benefits individuals but also contributes to narrowing the gender gap in economic participation on a global scale.

Author:Madhusha Thavapalakumar, journalist

More information

This article was first published in AB magazine April 2024

Returning to the workforce (2024)

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