BE OUT AND PROUD ABOUT YOUR PAUSE
Joanna Pomykala isn’t one to shy away from her truth. She’s a triathlete who trains early in the morning before her children rise and spends her days studying human behavior as the senior director of Insights for LinkedIn’s sales division. She leads a team of eighty people and has helped the company launch its Women’s Initiative (WIN), intended to get more women into senior management positions. Joanna is on the fast track to being one of them
Sure, her career is on fire now, but not so long ago, Joanna was home caring for her two children. She had been at Microsoft and then, after the birth of her second child, used her maternity leave to evaluate her next career move. She wanted to try the start-up route and decided to take first one job and then another at a series of early-stage companies. While she loved the fast-paced experience, she decided the risks were not worth the reward at that point in her career. Plus, her husband was at a start-up and was traveling extensively. The family needed some stability.
So, for almost two years, Joanna paused her career. She stayed in the game by taking on small consulting projects while she assessed her next move. She relished her time with her kids, but she knew she didn’t want to stay home indefinitely. She wasn’t “opting out,” just taking a career pause.
Because her husband was spending more time in San Francisco than Seattle, they decided to move down to the Bay Area. Once they settled in, Joanna embarked on an intensive job search. When she interviewed for various positions, Joanna didn’t hesitate to tell them she had paused her career to focus on her two young kids. She believes her pause not only gave her family a much-needed break, she says it also helped advance her career.
“Employers didn’t think twice about my time out because they saw it was more than ‘opting out.’ They understood I was willing to take risks and try new things,” Joanna told me. “I had something to talk about that helped my employer see I was making thoughtful choices about my life and my career.”
This empowered attitude is what women with successful non-linear careers have when it comes to their pauses. They aren’t apologetic. They explain their career break for what it is, a career strategy that enables them to take risks, try new things, build new skills, and come back stronger than ever.
A new study by Joni Hersch, professor of law and economics at Vanderbilt, revealed that when female candidates gave personal information about why they paused their careers, they raised their chance of being hired by up to 40 percent compared to a comparable female candidate who provided no personal information.253
Study co-author Jennifer Bennet Shinall said, “We have a significant number of highly educated, highly qualified women who take a few years off to raise children, and want to come back into the labor market. And the fact of the matter is they seem to be getting bad advice from recruiters and career websites urging them to pretend their private lives don’t exist.”254
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As I have shared before, there is a reason we hide our personal lives: caregiver bias. We have been trained to smooth over gaps in our resume because, we’ve been told, employers don’t want to hire women with children in general, and particularly women who have paused. It’s no wonder we are uncomfortable being forthcoming about our career breaks. But, as the latest research shows, hiding your truth hurts you.
It also hurts the rest of us. As we saw in chapter 3, the research of Professor Pamela Stone and other experts has revealed when women take time away from the paid workforce and don’t give voice to why they are leaving, they reinforce the notion that they are the ones that have failed, not the system itself.
If you decide to become a non-linear career trailblazer and pause briefly to care for your family, do it proudly. Tell your family, your friends, your business colleagues, and your employer what you are doing and why.
You can say (as one woman I interviewed told me she wished she had said), “I want to be able to give 100 percent to all that I do, but the way work is currently structured, I don’t feel I am truly able to do that. So, I’ve decided I’m going to take a brief career break. I’m doing this because I want to be the primary caregiver to my children when they are young. Then, I plan to recommit 100 percent to my career. I’d love your support.”
It is hard to argue with those who are authentic with their dreams and goals. By enlisting the support of others and being clear on what you want, you may find you have allies you didn’t know existed. Sure, there’s no doubt there will be many people who believe you are making a mistake by pausing your career, but having clarity and a plan can empower you to be true to your own path despite them
Just think, if every woman who paused spoke her truth about why she was pausing, we would help change the narrative that says women need to change, and put the focus on how the system needs to change to accommodate caregiving. As Anne-Marie Slaughter so brilliantly detailed in her book
Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family, we live in a cultural, political, and professional environment that doesn’t value caregiving. It is time we named it, owned it, and changed it.