DON’T GIVE UP
I interviewed one woman whom I’ll call Sara. In many ways she should be the Silicon Valley dream
hire. Sara was born in Iran and came to the United States for college. She has a degree in electrical engineering with a minor in computer science. She spent the bulk of her career working as a program manager for Sun Microsystems and then she decided to pause her career. For six years, Sara stayed home. Much to her surprise, when she was ready to break back into the paid workplace, she struggled.
“All these tech companies claim they want to hire women in STEM, but apparently they only want young women with no children,” she told me.
Sara was deeply demoralized. She explained she’d had job interviews with Amazon and Google, both to no avail. When I asked her to provide details, it turned out that Sara fell into a trap I have heard from a number of relaunchers who struggle to get back in. It’s not that she couldn’t find a job. She’d done a number of consulting gigs and had been offered full-time jobs, but felt the positions weren’t right for her. She wanted to hold out for the perfect job and since she couldn’t find it, she gave up.
Holding out for your ideal job is a valid strategy, although it’s one that requires you to have the financial resources and the fortitude to wait for something that meets your criteria. But rather than own that strategy, many women who don’t immediately get hired convince themselves that the system is stacked against them. Arguably, it is. But for some that can become an excuse to avoid continuing to look for work.
No doubt Sara faced age bias and motherhood bias and the bias faced by the long-term unemployed. But she also faced something else: her own internal beliefs about the employability of “opt-out” moms. Sara believed the narrative that it is too hard to get back in.
“Everyone told me it would be hard. Everyone told me my skills were outdated and that because of my career break, I was unemployable. They were right,” she said.
I challenged Sara to think back on her post-pause job-hunting process. She’d done many things right. She found consulting work that helped bring her skills up to speed. She’d used a few of her contacts to help make introductions to companies. But when the perfect job didn’t immediately materialize, Sara stopped trying.
“I realize now I wasn’t persistent enough. I could have widened my net to look at other companies and talked to more of my contacts. I could have taken something just to get back in the door. I could have taken my skills and applied them to another industry or career path. I could have, but I didn’t,” Sara said.
Sara and so many other women who have taken extended career pauses undoubtedly face obstacles to relaunching their careers. But it is important to recognize what role the system is playing and what role you are playing in limiting your options. Are your expectations unrealistic? Are you open to taking a job that might not be perfect to get your “foot in the door”? Are you considering what else you might do that could fit your skills, abilities, and interests? Have you given up because the perfect job hasn’t landed in your lap rather than work your way into that perfect job?
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I’m not trying to blame the job hunter. I am simply trying to highlight that relaunching your career takes an equal measure of grit and persistence. Don’t give up.
And yet, it is important to not diminish the challenges a relauncher who has taken an extended pause can face. A number of Women on the Rise respondents said they believed age bias was as challenging an issue for them as motherhood bias. One said, “I’m only forty-five and look younger than my age, but the recruiters and hiring managers are very young. It is hard to break their preconceived ideas.” Catherine Richards knows this only too well. She is currently the global lead for cyber security messaging at Dell Computers. After an eight-year career pause, she onramped via a series of parttime consulting projects and then a seven-month full-time stint at Alcatel-Lucent where she was hired by a woman who needed a fixed short-term marketing project completed. Notably, it was that same “sister” at Alcatel-Lucent who recommended Catherine for the Dell job.
Catherine said, “She went to bat for me and I will always be grateful.”
Catherine invited me to lunch when she heard from friends I was writing this book. She was intrigued and wanted to discuss my thesis: that pausing for parenthood won’t kill your career, particularly if you are strategic about your choices. Like many of the Women on the Rise respondents, she believes it isn’t just motherhood, but ageism that can hurt women who want to re-enter.
When we met, I thought Catherine was much younger than her years. She has a high, girlish voice that adds to the overall impression of youth. With her bright smile, smooth skin, and trim build, Catherine could easily pass for someone in her early thirties, but she is actually fifty-two years old, something she has kept a professional secret until now.
“I don’t intentionally lie about my age, but I think of it as career stewardship,” Catherine told me. “Most of my colleagues are much younger than I am, so to blend in I rarely talk about my children and I certainly don’t mention that they are college aged.”
When I asked why she wanted me to interview her for the book and “out” herself as a woman of certain age, Catherine said, “It’s time we women start being more authentic about our lives. I took a career break and now I’m a team leader at a fantastic technology company. I want to model for other women that it can be done, that you’re never too old to have a successful career. But I also want them to understand they need to be smart about how they do it.”
And how do they do it? They don’t give up!