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Women need to stop apologizing for taking career breaks

That gap in your resume – whether it’s one year or 10 years long – can prove to be more valuable than you think, says women’s leadership expert Selena Rezvani.
Selena Rezvani is a women's leadership speaker and author of the award-winning book, "Pushback: How Smart Women Ask - And Stand Up - For What They Want."
Selena Rezvani is a women's leadership speaker and author of the award-winning book, "Pushback: How Smart Women Ask - And Stand Up - For What They Want."Gabrielle Smarr

A blemish.

A stigma.

A stain.

So many women have been taught to look at career breaks on our resumes as something to be ashamed of – something that needs to be compensated for. Not only is there a hiring culture of looking down on people – even punishing them – due to gaps in work, but we live and work in a society that rewards uninterrupted job service, particularly when it comes to things like 401k or career progression. Some employers might view taking time off as a waste or are quick to write a candidate or incumbent off as lazy, distracted or unreliable.

This creates a lot of unjustified pressure for working women and mothers.

There’s pressure to work through mental illness, the early years of motherhood, or a significant life transition, like divorce or an empty nest.

There’s pressure to remain in a career that no longer makes them happy (or never did).

And as a result, many women can – wrongfully – undervalue themselves when they return to work.

However, I’m here to tell you that taking a break from your career is a good thing. Women should not feel ashamed or afraid to take a career break. In fact, it often helps people develop new skills and find a career path that truly makes them happy! And here’s a truth bomb: that gap in your resume – whether it’s one year or 10 years long – can prove to be more valuable than you think.

Why Do Women Take Career Breaks?

In March, LinkedIn conducted a survey of close to 23,000 workers and more than 7,000 hiring managers. They found that 62 percent of employees have taken career breaks and over one-third (mostly women) want to take a career break in the future.

Another LinkedIn survey from March found that women often take time away from work for parental leave (22 percent), medical leave (17 percent), and mental health reasons (14 percent). Of women who went on parental leave, 48 percent reported they felt forced to choose between their career and their children, and 59 percent worried about not spending enough time with their family because of work.

Furthermore, 41 percent of women have a difficult time telling their employer they want to take a break to have children and 60 percent of women say they feel anxious about getting back to work after leaving to have and care for children.

Of course, you don’t have to want children or be a mother to justify a career break.

Take Kimberly Turner Eng, for example. Her LinkedIn post went viral seven months ago when she announced she was taking a career sabbatical to “reclaim [her] health, run on trails, travel to new places and spend time with loved ones.”

Olga Batygin, co-founder and CEO of AI platform Lucinetic, took her third career break to battle cancer (the first two were to care for her newborn babies).

“It made me much more vulnerable,” she said. “I was totally OK talking about the kids, and I was 100 percent not OK talking about the cancer.” Batygin argued that helping employees and prospective employees manage the discomfort of discussing career breaks should fall on the employer.

And I couldn’t agree more. Managers need the skills to receive people’s vulnerable disclosures about breaks with sensitivity and openness. They also need to make sure they continually check their own bias and make sure they’d not adding their own filter on what that break means.

Take a Break with Confidence

If you’re considering a career break, there are two critically important “bookends” to the process: Planning your exit strategy and your return strategy. Getting these two things right will help you navigate this process with confidence and reduce some of the fear of the unknown that makes many women feel anxious.

Before you leave your current job:

1. Take inventory of your needs.

This is all about checking in with yourself to acknowledge what you most want and need. For example, is a continuous, multiweek (or multiyear) break out of the office your primary need? Or is it a more flexible work schedule, like working from home or a having a three-day weekend? Is moving to a new job or company going to give you a boost or is it a bigger step away that you’re eager to make? By getting clear on what the conditions are for your success, you can be that much steadier in asking for what you need.

2. Storyboard your career.

If you decide that a career break is what you need, take some time now, but not later, to document some of the more significant moments in your career – accomplishments and learning experiences. This will help you get a clear grasp on where you excel and bring particular value and how and where you break fits into it all. It also gives you a chance to envision how and when your return to work could look.

3. Make a plan.

If someone is going to create a narrative around your career break – whether it’s maternity leave, a sabbatical, or something else –it should be you! So, develop a one- to two-page document that shows your exit plan, including key dates, a transition plan for your work tasks, how and when to contact you, and more. If you plan to return to work and know the timeframe, include that with the graduated steps or other system you’ll use to take back your tasks.

4. Decide how you’d like to stay connected.

No matter what the nature of your break is, it can be a powerful confidence boost to stay in the know with your network. Take stock of everyone in your professional network from peers and junior employees to lawyers, clients, suppliers and beyond. You never know who will help you get a jumpstart in your career when you’re ready to re-enter the workforce. Then, rather than get overwhelmed by making a huge splash with this group, think of little weekly, or monthly deposits you could make in these relationships. Attending someone’s webinar, sharing a helpful article on LinkedIn, or setting up a coffee date with an old coworker.

Consider these strategies as you plan your return to work:

1. Give your break *meaning.*

Don’t blush, make excuses for not working or feel the need to over-explain yourself. Your decision to take a break was a personal one. Consider it valid. Instead, talk about your experiences, the skills you developed, and how you will apply those skills to your position. This is also a great time to focus on possibilities for the future, weaving in what you know, or have stayed up on through your network, that could make a positive impact at the company.

2. Tap into your network.

Did your former junior employee get promoted to manager? If so, they might be interested in making an enthusiastic employee referral for you at their company. Or what about your neighbor who works as a CMO and posted online recently that they have an opening? Your network opens you to limitless possibilities. Take advantage of it and give yourself a permission slip to ask favors of them! Of course, offering to reciprocate now or in the future goes a long way, too.

3. Head in a different direction.

Your new skills might make you the perfect candidate for a job you never thought you’d have, let alone love. Don’t be afraid to consider positions in a new field. Maybe that’s a hybrid of what you used to do with something new, or it’s a completely hard left turn into a new domain. Allow yourself the opportunity to explore what’s out there and interview or shadow people doing what interests you.

4. Know your value.

Newsflash! Returning from a career break does not mean that you must accept less. Your sabbatical likely made you more valuable in many ways. Remember your career milestones and connect your skills to the job responsibilities at hand. And here’s an especially important thing: negotiate for fair pay. In fact, link up with an accountability buddy who will push you (with love) to be a fierce negotiator and not accept less than what you deserve.

Right here, right now, we have the opportunity to change the culture around career breaks for good. Women have been tirelessly working, keeping homes and families and responsibilities in tact for eons – it’s time to stop asking them for an apology. And to start celebrating it.

Selena Rezvani is a women’s leadership speaker and author of the award-winning book, "Pushback: How Smart Women Ask – And Stand Up – For What They Want." She’s currently writing her third book called “Quick Confidence,” due out Spring 2023. Follow her on TikTok, Instagram and LinkedIn