Saturday, August 27, 2011

Returning to work after a career gap is tough going. Babies or not.

Firstly, before I begin, I can really only speak for women in engineering here. This is mostly based on my personal experience as well with a tiny bit of research that appears to back up my observations. As for women in non-science and engineering fields, please feel free to contact me and let me know what your experiences have been!

Back to the topic.

I don’t have any children yet but I have taken a hiatus from my career for 3 years and then attempted to return. I imagine my experience would be similar to a woman returning from a long stint (a couple years) raising her children. The key similarity here is that what you do during your hiatus is completely unrelated to your chosen career. Even if it is related, it really depends on how you go about leaving. If you are flipping desks over and storming out in a huff your boss wont want you back no matter what. Obviously.

I was initially working in an engineering consultancy several years ago but I wasn’t happy at all. Since high school I had dreamed of completing a physics degree but had been talked out of it by family because engineers earn more money. But the dream didn’t die. Eventually the burning desire got too much. It was time to do something.

I enrolled in a physics course with the intention of leaving engineering. I felt that it was my true calling after all. But I didn’t want my current employer to know this however. I didn’t want to burn bridges just in case I chose to come back, so I told him I was leaving to participate in an engineering PhD. Sadly I did not realise until much later that this lie was never going to help much because in the engineering world, a PhD means you would rather work in academia. Something the engineering industry harbors a significant prejudice against. Academia is simply too impractical to be of use to any real applications. Apparently. So in reality my now former boss pretty much wrote me off. I was simply going to be too “academic” to be of use to the engineering firm employing me at the time.

Even if I hadn’t left to study, my boss was probably still going to write me off eventually. Anything more than about an 8-9 month hiatus screams “I’m not insanely in love with my engineering role” to an employer. Regardless of the truth. Managers simply assume that you can’t possibly like your job that much if you apparently find it so easy to stay away. In my experience, your reputation when you get back will be that of a “distracted engineer” that would rather be doing other things and struggles with workload. Brutal I know. You colleagues will hesitate distributing work to you because they will be unsure if you will attack the task with the same aggression you once did. If you attack it at all. You abandoned them once already right?

In all honesty, I believe you would be better off moving on. Your previous colleagues have had their perceptions of you shattered by you unexpected departure. Which is entirely their doing. You haven’t changed, but it will still take considerable time for you to regain your reputation and that time is probably better spent establishing yourself in a new role. Sadly, If you are doing your job well there is never a good time, in you employer’s opinion, to leave a role. You will always appear to be letting everyone down suddenly. At least a new employer will not be be remembering the fancy footwork they had to do to cover your absence.

As a general rule, once they leave a job, the vast majority of people don’t ever go back to that organisation. Thats why a hiatus is so hard to come back from. Most employers and colleagues can’t overcome the assumption that once you have left, you don’t want to work with them anymore. That your priorities are now elsewhere.

So you decide to find a new employer.

After my three year hiatus, despite the job market being quite strong, it took 12 months to find a new job. One of the most disturbing things I discovered was that no matter how much experience I had, employers would take the length of my hiatus and subtract it from the total. Even my previous employer wanted me to “start slowly” in a more modest, slightly lower paid, role. I had zero chance of getting a job at the same level as my previous one. Female engineer friends of mine returning from having babies experienced the same thing. Essentially if you are returning to work, expect a pay cut. Don’t ask me why. I haven’t thought that far. That’s a story for another day.

If what I and my friends experienced is the norm, this goes a long way towards explaining why female salaries plateau out during their 30’s and pick up again at 40+. Returning women are forced to take a pay hit when they return to work and that levels out the numbers. Once women get past child rearing age they are all back at work full time, slowly climbing the corporate ladder again so the collective numbers begin to rise.

According to Cathy Foley (CSIRO), Chief of material science and engineering division:

Science and technology is a field that changes all the time, so if you’re out of the workforce it takes quite a bit to catch up.

Women also often have a different career path to men – until their 30s there’s a very similar career path, and then they split. Women tend to plateau or go backwards for about 15 years.


But I’ve noticed that women’s careers kick off again in their late 40s and early 50s. So if they can hang in there, women tend to do really, really well.

What we’ve found is that many women don’t realise this, and get frustrated that their career is going backwards. So they leave the workforce or get jobs in other sectors.

source: So seriously, why aren’t there more women in science?, The Conversation, 24 August 2011, 6.42am AEST

So hang in there. If you can afford the pay cut, its all smooth sailing from that point on. You can start to climb the ladder as before. Personally, after my experience I am hesitant to take any further breaks to have children despite wanting to. At least this time I know what I am in for. I can save my money and bunker down during the long job search and mentally prepare myself for the reduced pay shock. I guess time will tell.


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Feasibility is an engineering based blog designed to reach other STEM people. Non-STEM people are also welcome! I try to give good advice and well-reasoned opinions but please don’t hesitate to disagree with me. This blog exists because I realised that I live in a metaphorical bubble and that simply wont do. Nup.


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