Did you off-ramp your career and not even realize it? Don't worry. You are in good company. There is a lot of traffic on that off-ramp.
First, let's talk about what off-ramping is and how prevalent it is for highly educated, professional women. Secondly, let's talk about how to help you on-ramp (aka on-board) if that is what you are after.
According to the research done by economist and workplace expert Silvia Ann Hewlett and her partners, 60 percent of working women off-ramp at some point during their careers. To off-ramp refers to a woman voluntarily opting out of the workforce at the point at which they were on a fast-track advancement career to take care of family responsibilities (pregnancy, child care, elder care, or other personal reasons). In the "Hidden Brain Drain Task Force" report (PDF available on Amazon.com), Hewlett and her co-authors detail how 89 percent of these women try to return to the workforce full-time, many after more than a decade-long absence, and they are usually not employable (i.e. don't get a job) or are under-employed (lower pay, lower status, lower responsibilities). Only 40 percent of them get full-time jobs.
In her book, Off Ramps and On Ramps, Hewlett details the results of an extensive survey of over 2,000 professional women and blends it with the findings from high-level executive interviews with top global corporations about how to retain top women talent. She encourages these corporations to do six things to retain women throughout their career and minimize "off-ramping":
- "Flex-work arrangements"
- "Arc-of-career flexibility"
- "Re-imagination of work life"
- "Continuation of ambition"
- "Harnessing of activism"
- "Reduction of stigmas and stereotypes"
Given how tough it is to get back into the corporate full-time game, I recommend that women consider hiring a career coach to help them position their candidacy in a way that shows how they have the skills and expertise and keeps the conversation focused on how they can contribute today, rather than how they opted out yesterday.
As a career and leadership coach to women, I would like to share my top five considerations for women who have off ramped and want to on ramp:
#1: Be at peace with your decisions.
I'm sure that you opted out of your paid, full-time career for reasons that were completely valid and generous. You have nothing to apologize for. I'm betting that a lot of people close to you benefitted greatly by your decision to help them. Maybe you simply didn't have a choice. Whatever the reason, you need to get to the point mentally and emotionally where you are at peace with your past decision.
#2: Project peace with your decisions.
I think it weakens you and is beneath you to have to second-guess these past decisions for any employer (or anybody) who wants to know why you left the fast-track of any career. Of course, they are going to ask you why you did and you need to be ready. However, when you develop your response, it will be more effective (let alone more authentic) if you project that you are someone who is at peace with your decisions. Employers want to hire people who are decisive, forward-thinkers, and accountable. You can either demonstrate these qualities in how you answer the question OR you can seem wishy-washy, defensive, reactive, and apologetic. Who would you rather hire?
#3: Focus on how you can contribute today.
When I work with clients, I help them develop a series of responses to the question of they they off-ramped (30 second, one minute, two minutes). Embedded in their answers is a very short WHY they did, an expanded HOW they grew and served others and acquired marketable skills, and a PIVOT onto how the experience of off ramping actually prepared them to serve their potential employer even more. If you carefully identify, develop, script, and rehearse these responses, ideally with a coach or friend, you will be able to shift the momentum of the employment conversation away from what the potential employer views as a liability to what you view as an asset in terms of serving them in the present on their present challenge. Sure, it is a bit tricky, but I believe in YOU! What employers really want to know once they get beyond their prurient curiosity into why you left such and such stellar career path and entered the "nonlinear discontinuous career space" (i.e. off ramp world) is: how can you improve their bottom line, be fun to work with, take direction and be trainable, make them look good to their boss, develop their young/inexperienced talent, and pull it all off without off ramping again soon...so tell them this in your answer and spin it in the pivot.
#4: Network, Baby!
Nothing helps someone regain more momentum than reinvigorating their network. I always encourage clients to join as many networks as they can and try to build real rapport with the people they meet. While you may feel that you are looking for help from others, try to turn that dynamic around the other way. Try to figure out how you can help connect other people or do things for them. You will enjoy it and it will create a real connection that can lead to good things for you in the future.
Serve first, ask later.
If people ask you how they can help you, be sure to have a specific answer ready for them and make it easy for them. For example, if they offer to write a letter for you, suggest to them the three bullet points which would be most relevant for your prospective employer...they will appreciate not having to guess what to say or what to emphasize. If they offer to make a call for you, tell them the name, number, and title of the person you think would most help you get the job.
#5: On ramp yourself!
While it may not be the right choice for everyone, I think that women who are having trouble getting rehired into the types of corporate positions they left should consider starting their own business or working for a small business. If you are going to have to take a pay cut, responsibility cut, and go out of your way to put in the face time and demonstrate your commitment to your firm, you owe it to yourself to explore what your experience could be like if you work for yourself or you go with a smaller firm. You may really enjoy the challenge and you would have more control over your time and less likelihood that you would be pulled in the types of situations that caused you to believe you had to off ramp in the first place.