Emma Bewley, Head of Fund Investment for a private client business, talks to us about her return to work following a career break:
Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background and how you came to be on a career break?
I worked in the city until 2012 having graduated in 1999. During my career I had two children and went back after both births around the 5 month mark on a phased return. When we discovered 4 days a week worked for both me and my employer I carried on working four days and was available on the phone if they needed me on the fifth. I was made redundant at the beginning of 2012, after my second period of maternity leave. I didn’t have any plans to take a career break but we had decided to relocate for better school options for our children so it seemed like opportune timing for me to take a brief career break to get the children settled and then look for a new role.
After a year I started actively seeking a full-time position. When I did get interviews I was often told I was too senior for the role I was applying for. After 18 months I was still looking for roles and at this point I was not being put forward for as many interviews for senior roles as the gap on my CV was more obvious, so you end up being shown more junior roles for which you are just not appropriate. It’s a catch 22 situation: you can’t get back in at a senior level because of the career break, but you struggle to get a more junior position because employers fear you are too ambitious and over qualified. Some interviewers seemed to be very hung up on my children, asking about childcare arrangements, what my husband thought about my career plans and even who my friends were. In the end an old contact got in touch and invited me to interview with their firm. A few conversations later I got the offer.
What’s the best thing about returning to work?
Doing what I have expertise to do, and having independence and autonomy. It’s nice to be able to set an example to the children. It’s also great to be using my brain again in quite a technical role. Intellectual stimulation is really important to me.
Was anything different to what you expected?
Having had time out I was surprised at how quickly everything came back. Your brain does not atrophy just for having a year or two off. The knowledge you accumulated over the course of your career hasn’t disappeared: it is still relevant and your experience is still valuable. What was a surprise was how physically exhausting it was combining working with my responsibilities at home. When I went back to work I realised I had to give up some control of my responsibilities at home or run things like a military operation. We’ve settled for somewhere in the middle: I’m more or less on top of everything that is going on but we also have an amazing nanny that I really trust to do the job. My husband is very supportive: we agreed when I first went back that if there were any emergencies at home or the children were ill it would be him that would take time off to care for them, allowing me time to focus and resettle into the job. You have to have time to establish yourself and for that good support is critical: I also had other people lined up as back up if something did go wrong. Now I’ve been in the role a year and built trust I have flexibility from my employers because they know the work will be done and there is no requirement for face time or presenteeism. Around about the 9 month mark I did find I was totally exhausted and realised that you do need to take a long term view and factor in time out and holidays: remembering to live as well as just trying to fulfil all of the responsibilities.
Would you do anything differently?
I wish I hadn’t given myself such a hard time: the loss of confidence that you have for having been out of the industry for a while can have a considerable impact on how you interview. Don’t under value yourself and take something just because you feel that’s all you can get – if you take the wrong job then you do even more damage to your confidence because you’re in the wrong job. Don’t undervalue your experience: you are not starting again from scratch.
What’s the five year plan? Are you still ambitious?
I am still ambitious, but I’ve never really been good at five year plans – most of my career feels largely accidental! I will always look for opportunities to learn and develop and I’m definitely looking for a career that continues to grow.
Do you talk about your kids at work?
I didn’t for the first six months. For the first few months I was very conscious that I was coming back from a career break and felt I had to prove myself. When you’re first back in a job you have to set yourself a few little benchmarks that you can look at and say “I’ve done that and I’m doing a good job”. Once I felt like I was established I relaxed and will talk more about my family.
Can you think of two things companies could do to get to Gender Equality faster?
They need to broaden their recruitment criteria: a career break should not rule you out. I was told a number of times by recruiters that their clients wouldn’t consider me because of the career break, so they wouldn’t put me forward for the role. If you can’t get past those gatekeepers you don’t even have the opportunity to make an impression at interview. Businesses need to recognise that people can and do work in different ways and trust people to be adults: schemes like flexible working and job sharing can require some effort from employers but give them access to employees they might not otherwise have.
Finally what are the benefits of businesses employing women returning to the workforce?
The same as employing anyone else: they are experienced and competent professionals that may bring something different to the business. It’s about recognising that they are good at their job and that considering them isn’t about making concessions or discriminating.