Women Are Leaving The Workforce In Droves. Here’s What You Should Do Before, During, and After a Career Break

A photo to accompany a story about how women can plan for and return from career breaks Illustration by Grant Crowder / Getty Images / Adobe Stock
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More than 2.3 million women have left the workforce since the start of the pandemic, according to a recent report from the National Women’s Law Center

The recession and unemployment has been even worse for Black and Latina women, the report found. While many women have lost their jobs on account of the pandemic and recession, others are voluntarily leaving the workforce to care for children or elderly relatives. 

A recent NextAdvisor survey found significantly more women than men have temporarily or permanently left the workforce since March 2020 to care for children. While the pandemic has driven this change for many, the concept of a “career break” isn’t new, especially for working mothers. 

Nearly 90% of career re-entry candidates are female, says Carol Fishman Cohen, the CEO and co-founder of iRelaunch, a company that creates corporate career re-entry programs for people who have taken a career break. 

Career breaks, different from maternity or paternity leave, generally last anywhere from one to 20 years, and can be taken for a variety of reasons. “A career break could be for child care or elder care reasons, but it could also include someone recovering from a health issue, or for someone who had an expat experience, like a military spouse,” says Cohen. 

For many women, it’s become clear the pandemic has factored into the decision to step back. 

Whatever the reasoning, experts say there are things you can do before leaving a career to make a future return to the workforce easier:

Before You Leave Your Job

Many people don’t have the opportunity to fully prepare for exiting the workforce, but if you can, try to tick these boxes. 

1. Be Certain This Is the Right Move

“Have a really hardcore conversation to be sure that not only short-term, but long-term, this is the right move for the family,” says Carrie Rattle, a financial therapist who focuses on money behaviors of women and couples.  

It’s crucial to think long-term when considering a career break, even if you’re only planning a shorter-term absence. 

“Typically, we see [people] take much longer career breaks than they were anticipating,” says  Cohen. “They think they’re only going to be out a year or two, then the next thing you know, they wake up and 10 years have gone by.” 

The impact of being out of the workforce for any amount of time can quickly compound. 

“They may not be able to get a job that pays as well, and they won’t pay into their 401(k) or Social Security for the time they’re out,” says Rattle. “It’s the multiplier effect, the cumulative effect.” 

If you’re not sure a career break is right for you, consider asking your employer about other work options that are more flexible. This might mean part-time work, but that’s not the only choice. Other possibilities include shifting your hours, working on a project basis, or reducing some responsibilities, Caroline Fairchild, news editor-at-large at LinkedIn, said in an email. 

“Another factor that I would tell a woman to consider is how open her manager might be to a short leave of absence, rather than a permanent move to part-time or leaving your role indefinitely,” says Fairchild.  “Managers are becoming more understanding of the demands working women are facing right now and it might be in the best interest of both parties for you to take a leave of absence and then come back and resume your role.”

2. Start Documenting 

Once you’ve definitely decided that a career break is in your future, start documenting and keeping track of what your current role entails.  

“You should document everything that you remember is significant from your current role, and narrow it down to milestone moments,” says Cohen. 

These don’t all have to be positive milestones either, but it’s important to document times when you learned something. Having these things documented will be helpful when you’re searching for a job in the future. 

“You’re going to need a set of anecdotes reflecting your prior work experience to talk about in interviews,” says Cohen. “It’s harder to recreate that when you’re looking backwards instead of in the moment.”

3. Take Stock of Your Network

Write down everyone you have a relationship with — and think big. 

Don’t narrow your focus to those on your immediate team. Are there advisors, lawyers, accountants, clients, suppliers, or other people you know? They might be your ticket into a new role someday. 

Don’t forget people lower than you, also. 

“Think about your peers, but also people who are junior to you. These junior people are going to be moving up, and they may be in a position to offer you a job opportunity later on,” says Cohen. 

During Your Career Break 

It’s called a break for a reason. Take one. You’re not doing anyone any favors if you spend your career break worrying about getting right back into the workforce, says Cohen. 

“Women who are taking a career break right now because of the pandemic need to be gentle with themselves, and they need to think about their return to work prospects in steps,” says Cohen. “They might think that they can’t do anything right now, except to focus on why they took the career break in the first place, and that is perfectly fine and that’s what they should do.”

Once you’re ready to start thinking about returning to work, there are things you can do to start easing back in:

When You’re Thinking About Returning to Work

1. Start From Scratch

Try and view your career break as a gift, recommends Cohen. 

“It’s often the first time [people] allow themselves to step back and reflect on whether they were on the right career path to begin with,” says Cohen. 

Maybe you’re in a different life stage than when you started your career break, and your job needs have changed. Maybe your job before COVID involved a lot of travel and you don’t want to do that anymore, or you landed in a job right after school that wasn’t quite the right fit. 

Thinking along these lines can help prepare you for positioning your circumstances in job interviews. A career relaunch can give you a chance to reassess where your skills and interests align to produce the most value, Cohen says.

2. Do You Need to Upskill?

Whether you want to go back to exactly what you were doing before your career break, or want to start something entirely new, determine what your skill gap is. If you took a break from your field for a few years, what information do you need to know to be up to speed? If you’re starting something new, what education or training do you need to be successful?

“You’re ideally identifying a skills gap early on as part of pinpointing exactly what you want to do,” says Cohen. “But I wouldn’t discourage anyone from upskilling at any point in the process.”

Upskilling could mean something as involved as going back to school, or as simple as signing up for a free refresher course online. Upskilling can also signal to employers how serious you are about returning to work, says Cohen. 

3. Become a Subject Matter Expert

Whatever field you’re looking to return to or break into for the first time, become a subject matter expert on the most up-to-date information available. 

“It’ll make you feel more confident, the more up to date in your field you are. Learn all of the acronyms, products, controversies, experts, and topics. You’ll feel more in touch going into your job search,” says Cohen.  

Becoming a subject matter expert is also the perfect opportunity to take a new look at your network.

4. Reconnect With Your Network

If there’s a natural, easy way to stay connected with certain members of your network during your career break, then do it. But don’t feel pressured to keep up with everyone consistently, says Cohen.

A great way to reconnect with someone you haven’t spoken to in a while is to ask them to hop on a quick call to get their opinion on who the best experts are, or which blogs, podcasts, and books you should be reading and listening to. 

“Say, ‘I’m in information-gathering mode, I want to become a subject matter expert all over again before I start my search to return to work in earnest. I’d be really interested in hearing your opinion on who the experts are and what I should be studying right now,’” says Cohen.

It’s an easy way to rekindle relationships that have been dormant for awhile. 

If you’re hoping to return to the company or role you were previously in, try to connect periodically with your old manager, says Fairchild.

“Perhaps you’ll feel ready to return sooner than you expected, or your company will institute new policies or resources to make it easier for you to return,” says Fairchild. “Keeping those lines of communication open is a great step to set you up for future success.”

5. Identify Opportunities and Update Your Resume

When you’re ready to start applying for new roles, find ways to bolster your resume in addition to education or upskilling. Maybe that involves identifying volunteer opportunities to give you relevant experience and a chance to practice your skills. 

If you’ve done things to enhance your skills, make sure you highlight them in the right way on your resume — Cohen recommends right at the top of your resume, with the most recent information — and also learn how to present your career break to employers. 

“I definitely think there’s going to be a concept called the COVID gap that people are going to put on the resumes, and employers are going to understand immediately,” says Cohen. But still, Cohen recommends people “acknowledge that you took the career break, but don’t apologize for it. Then move on to why you’re the best person for the job. 

“[Employers] know that the phenomenon was so widespread during this time, and they’re going to attach less of a stigma to it than has been attached in the past.”

Fairchild also recommends being open and honest about your career break and situation. 

“Of the thousands of hiring managers that we spoke to in the course of our research, 96% said that they would hire a candidate who lost their job or was forced to leave the workforce due to the pandemic, and encouraged candidates to be transparent about their circumstances in an interview setting,” says Fairchild. “Many also suggested that a candidate use that topic as an opportunity to highlight other experiences that they may have gained during that time.”

6. Look Into Career Reentry Programs

Sometimes referred to as “returnships,” mid-career reentry programs offer an internship-like experience for people returning from a career break. Often, these programs incorporate coaching and development for professionals returning to the workforce after some time away, and can be found in many different industries and fields. 

These programs are geared specifically to people who’ve had a career break (generally you have to have a break in your resume to qualify), and are operating even during COVID in remote environments.