Before kids, Lorraine Wilde had a great job managing supplies for a chemistry lab in Bellingham, a vibrant college town. It was the kind of job she’d trained for when she earned her master’s degree in environmental science, the kind of job she thought she’d have forever. But her plans changed in a heartbeat — or, more precisely, two heartbeats — when she found out she was expecting twins nine years ago.
Wilde planned to work after having a child, but with two babies on the way, the picture was less certain. Full-time childcare for two infants would eat up much of her salary, and her employer wasn’t offering much flexibility. Ultimately, she decided to trade her dream job for full-time twin duty.
It wasn’t an easy choice, she says, and though she’s cherished raising her two boys, she still misses the validation she got from her previous job. She found a part-time teaching job when her twins were toddlers, but when the recession zapped funding for the position in 2009, she started to accept that her career map was forever changed.
Wilde has lots of company on the on-again, off-again career track of early motherhood. Although more than 70 percent of moms with kids younger than 18 participate in the labor force, the number drops to 63.9 percent for moms with kids younger than 6, and just 56.5 percent for moms with infants, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). That means a sizable population of parents put work on hold to raise children before hopping back into the professional arena.
And when they do, many find a post-kids professional landscape that looks different than the one they’d envisioned. When parents opt back in, can they keep their career on track and get the flexibility they want? Or will they pay a penalty for temporarily stepping off the career train?
Working moms paying the price
With our competitive, fast-paced job market and little in the way of protective leave policies for parents, those who take time off can pay a steep price. One study found that American women who take between four and 12 months off work after the birth of a child slash their chances of being promoted by 15 percent, compared to women who take a shorter maternity leave. The same study also found that having more children increases the career penalty: After having two or more children, women are more likely to make a downward career change than an upward one.
Working moms bring home less bacon, too. According to U.S. government reports, women earn 78.7 cents for every dollar earned by men. Research from the American Sociological Association found that moms face a 7 percent wage penalty per child. Another study found that for every two years a woman is out of the labor force, her earnings fall by 10 percent.
Most moms can’t count on governmental policies to safeguard their careers — job-protected parental leave is far from universal. Although some parents receive 12 weeks of job-protected, unpaid parental leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, the law only applies to employers with more than 50 workers, and employees must work 1,250 hours over the preceding 12 months to qualify. Based on these stipulations, only 45 percent of working women qualify.
On paper, prospects look grim for American working moms. But certified human resources professional Amy McGeachy, a consultant and career coach to clients throughout Washington and Oregon, thinks the stats tell only part of the story.
True, some studies may show downward mobility or wage penalties for moms with young kids, but the moms themselves are initiating many of those career changes. “A number of moms are actively choosing to take a step back in their careers,” she says. “They may only be willing to work 40 hours a week, instead of 65, or they may not want to travel for work anymore, and they’re willing to accept less compensation. They want to balance a career and family, so these are changes they want.”
Finding flexible work arrangements
Although studies suggest that moms want career flexibility — recent surveys have shown that about 60 percent of moms with young children would prefer part-time employment — many, like Wilde, find that part-time pickings are slim. Faith Rayman, licensed counselor and career specialist at Bellevue College, says she’s seeing fewer part-time positions available, even as the job market picks up. “Years ago, there was a perception that a mom could always find a part-time job if she needed to, or that she could always find work as a secretary. That’s not necessarily true anymore,” she notes.
Flexible work arrangements (including flextime, job sharing, compressed workweeks and telecommuting) can exist in a number of industries, but whether or not a mom will be successful in creating flexible work arrangements depends on her boss, says McGeachy. Without extended, legislated job protection, most employers are free to decide whether or not they’ll offer job sharing or perks to moms. Although many large companies have leave and flextime policies in place, moms can run into barriers when they try to put them into practice.
If a mom isn’t getting the career flexibility she wants or needs, should she jump the track and train for a new career? Not so fast, says McGeachy. “If you switch industries, you not only have to overcome the learning curve, but you have to then convince people to give you flexible work options. If you love what you’re doing, and you can try to figure out how to do it in a scaled-back way, that’s ideal,” she says.
Dr. E. Sofina Bloom, a pediatrician and mom of two young boys in Tacoma, couldn’t imagine leaving the medical profession after becoming a mom. Luckily, she didn’t have to. Since the birth of her first son, she’s pared her 50-hours-a-week schedule to just two days a month.
Like their counterparts in other demanding professions, female physicians who take time off to care for kids still encounter some stigma, says Bloom. “When women wanted to take time off or cut back their hours, there used to be an attitude of ‘Just suck it up and work harder.’ But that’s changing. More women are standing up and saying, ‘I’m a mom, and this is important. I can get back to my career later.’”
Making a career change
What if a pre-kids career is no longer a good fit? Career switches are highly common — modern workers hold more than 10 jobs during their prime working years, according to the BLS. Redmond mom of five Sandy Cairns, J.D., LL.M., was ready for a career change when her youngest kids started school. After some soul searching, the former commercial real estate pro enrolled in law school at Seattle University and went on to earn a master’s degree in tax law from the University of Washington (UW). Today, she works in estate planning law for a small Issaquah firm.
Before setting foot in a law classroom, though, Cairns did some career introspection in a popular “Career Transitions” class offered by Bellevue College. The noncredit class, offered twice per year, is designed for people re-entering the workforce and helps define aptitudes and career goals. Cairns now recommends the class to other women looking to make a change. (Several local community colleges offer similar courses, including North Seattle Community College and Renton Technical College.)
Taking a refresher course, whether in technology or leadership development, helps close gaps in your résumé and shows employers that you’re serious, says McGeachy. “When you’ve been out of the workplace for a few years, a recent class on your résumé shows that you’re working to stay fresh,” she says.
Networking to get work
After setting their sights on a revamped career, moms will face changes in the workplace, especially if they’ve taken time off. One surprise for many is the heightened importance of social networking, says Vic Snyder, associate director of counseling at the UW Career Center. Understanding of the use of social media and networking is absolutely critical to job search success, he says.
McGeachy agrees. Job seekers can’t afford to underestimate the value of LinkedIn, she says. “Companies have lots of search tools at their disposal, and this is the number-one tool they use.” Keeping an up-to-date profile and checking it regularly is essential.
LinkedIn can also help job seekers leverage their existing network to create connections and opportunities. For example, Husky graduates can join the UW alumni group on LinkedIn to virtually “meet” other alumni in companies or fields that appeal to them. Virtual meetings can translate into real-life contacts when job seekers attend local networking events hosted by professional associations in their field.
McGeachy recommends taking advantage of social networking months before career reentry. “Six months to a year before you’d like to start actively searching, update your LinkedIn profile and start attending networking events in your field.” Simply creating a résumé and sending it out without doing any prep work or networking isn’t a sound strategy, she says.
Finding a new path
After struggling with feeling like a failure for stepping off the science career track, Wilde found part-time career happiness as a freelance writer. These days, she works 15 hours a week in between volunteering at the twins’ school and managing the household.
Nearly any career change requires retraining (she’s invested in writing courses and dozens of books on the topic) as well as a new mindset, she says. “I grew up with the idea that you try to find the job you can retire in. It took a while to convince myself that another job could be fulfilling.” It’s something that she’s still working on, she admits. But at this point, she’s thrilled to once again be working in a field she loves.
Malia Jacobson is a nationally published freelance writer and mom of two from Tacoma. She blogs about health and parenting at thewellrestedfamily.com.
4 essential steps for getting back on the career track:
Plan your move. Before you dust off your old résumé, consider whether your old career is still a good fit. If you need to invest in education or training for a job change, begin researching options at least a year or two before you’d like to step into a job search.
Refresh your skills. Even if you’re not planning to change careers, consider a course in networking, interviewing or social media. Community colleges offer noncredit courses on career-related topics, starting at $25.
Build your network. Six months to a year before a job search, create an up-to-date LinkedIn profile and start attending networking events in your field.
Be engaged and informed. An informational interview with a professional in your field is one of the best ways to get a foot in the door. Ask for recommendations and advice (just don’t ask for a job — an informational-interview faux pas). Remember to send a thank-you note.
Sources: Amy McGeachy, PHR, president, McGeachy Consulting; and Vic Snyder, associate director, UW Career Center
Great Seattle-area professional-development courses:
1. “How to Find the Work You Love,” North Seattle Community College. Noncredit.
2. “Preparing for Your Future, Unlocking Your Potential,” Renton Technical College. Noncredit.
3. “Career Transitions,” Bellevue College. Noncredit.