SOCIETY: THE SECOND ACT

May 05, 2019

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For millennial mothers who opt for a career break due to lack of child care or spousal support, getting back into the job market can be a daunting task. Maria* unearths her resume from a hard drive, which is drowning in gigabytes of baby photos and printable Pre-K worksheets. She has raised two children in the past four years and with her toddler starting school the following August, she’s ready to walk the corporate corridors again without ‘mom guilt’ weighing her down or holding her back.

Her once impeccable resume was last opened four years ago. It is clearly in need of a few updates.

‘Well, what were you doing for the past four years?’ she asks herself. The cursor blinks impatiently waiting for her to respond and fill the void in the timeline that highlights her absence from the job market — a red flag for any recruiter.

An increasing number of employers are inducting ‘returnship’ programmes — aimed at helping mid-career professional women transition back to the corporate world after taking time off to raise their children

Acting as chief household officer, or mother, Maria has put in the hours and effort to raise a family, honing skills such as her ability to multitask, work under pressure, manage time and resolve conflicts. But, is that an achievement she can add to her resume? While the decision to leave her job was tough, it was one she had to make.

For mothers who opt for a career break — willingly or unwillingly — the job hunt following their decision to return can be daunting. They often find themselves being judged for choosing to step away from lucrative careers to stay home to raise a family instead. Many label the decision a ‘mistake’ and perceive these mothers as lazy, incompetent and incapable of balancing work and family.


Sitwat signed off her resignation letter with the word “regrettably” — a feeling that encompassed her emotional state at the time. “I’d been working so hard for this promotion and resigning just when I was this close, it felt like I’d wasted all my effort and time.”

But what followed was even harder.

“Looking back, it’s funny how I thought that was bad,” she adds. “The comments that came after were even worse. Those around me, even those who were aware of my legitimate reason for quitting, were quick to judge and said I was just looking forward to take the ‘convenient, easy way out.’ As if giving up a career you’ve worked for your whole life to stay home and raise kids is an easy job.”

However, millennial moms who stepped off the fast track are interested in rejoining the workforce and return to their field of expertise. According to a research report published in Harvard Business Review (March 2005 issue), 43 percent of qualified American women off-ramped to attend to responsibilities at home, mainly to raise children, and 93 percent of these highly qualified women wanted to return to their careers.

In Pakistan’s case, women constitute only 24 percent of the labour force. According to Pakistan’s Bureau of Statistics, only three percent of Karachi’s skilled, professional jobs are held by women, who account for less than 0.01 percent of workers in finance, real estate and insurance. Given our current demographic and market trend, a transformation of the corporate culture is crucial for employers to reverse the brain drain and ease re-entry to the workforce in order to retain the dwindling number of working women while also tapping into the skilled female talent pool.

However, this doesn’t make a strong case for returnees. Dependent on support systems such as family, and reliable and affordable crèches, working women often face pressure from society as well as employers. Having children sidelines many women from promotions and bigger projects, and the motherhood penalty remains unchanged.


Many recruiters still do not see parenting as a commitment or devotion of time and effort, but rather as a conflict of interest. As feminist and activist Gloria Steinem pointed out in an interview last year on Talks@Columbia, a thought leadership series, “When men have children, they’re more likely to be hired as men, and when women have children, they’re less likely to be hired because it’s assumed that they will be distracted.”

Women are burdened with the expectation to return ‘energised’ and ‘refreshed’ from maternity leave and continue from where they left off.

Leena*, who works in the pharmaceutical sector, learned this on her return from her three-month maternity leave. Recovering from a C-section and sleep-deprived from late-night feedings, Leena was shocked to hear one male co-worker casually ask her if she had enjoyed her “long vacation.”

A long absence from the corporate sector is considered to be an indication of reduced ability and obsolete skills which puts working mothers at a further disadvantage. Few hiring managers are willing to place their bet on a woman’s resume with a gap. With employers showing less interest, these women unfortunately understand re-entry as translating to a compromise on pay or seniority. The few who manage to find a job of their choice, without compromising on compensation or position, consider themselves neither ‘qualified’ nor ‘deserving,’ but opt to call themselves ‘lucky.’

A long absence from the corporate sector is considered to be an indication of reduced ability and obsolete skills which puts working mothers at a further disadvantage. Few hiring managers are willing to place their bet on a woman’s resume with a gap. With employers showing less interest, these women unfortunately understand re-entry as translating to a compromise on pay or seniority.

Fortunately, more companies in Pakistan are now starting to see the business case for gender diversity, even in sectors considered non-traditional for women. Women bring increased productivity and efficiency to the workplace and with more women in senior positions, work policies and company culture in Pakistan are now changing radically. Each year, ambitious qualified female graduates enter the job market, with a determination to excel, despite a lack of support systems and, in the case of returnees, a clear path.


Today, many organisations in Pakistan are embracing the change and offering longer paid maternity leaves, better onsite day-care facilitates and flexible hours to retain the female talent they have invested in. Some have even launched ‘re-entry’ programmes in order to tap into the under-recruited talent pool of women with long career gaps.

Employers are now enabling women to re-enter the job market after a break
Employers are now enabling women to re-enter the job market after a break

Introduced by Goldman Sachs in the fall of 2008, a re-entry programme, or a ‘returnship’ — a term it later trademarked — is an eight-week paid mid-career internship launched in the US and is currently in its 11th year of running.

Re-entry programmes are designed to provide a supportive environment and ease the transition through trainings and mentorship, allowing participants to access a vast network of resources and bringing them up-to-date with industry trends. At the end of the apprenticeship, successful candidates transition to full-time positions.

Following the success of the Goldman Sachs Returnship Programme, many banks and organisations followed suit and, today, over 160 companies worldwide have their own versions of the returnship programmes.

In Pakistan, the concept was introduced in the telecom sector in 2014 by an organisation that also offers a global six-month maternity leave instead of three months required by policy, as per Pakistan’s law back in 2014. The six-month internship programme offers flexible working opportunities to women with a career gap of at least one year. A prior work experience of at least two years before the break is required to be eligible for the programme. Today not only is it a feature of their annual recruitment but boasts of a 45 percent internal placement rate.


Many other family-oriented companies that pride themselves on inclusion and diversity have since then launched their own re-entry programmes. A minimum of two-year work experience prior to the break is a requirement to be eligible for the programmes that are targeted towards working mothers looking to return to work with flexi hours and/or work-from-home options while working on live business projects.

Some multinationals currently offer six to eight month development programmes with long-term projects that are designed to appeal to mothers by offering transport services, in-house day care and flexi hours. They require a minimum three-year prior work experience but promise a shot at a full-time job at the end of the period.

The original idea of returnships catered to talented mid-career men and women looking to return to the workforce after a career hiatus ranging from two to 10 years. What is interesting about the returnship programmes that have trickled down to Pakistan is that they are not the average eight-to-12 week internships but tailored to the local market as long-term projects ranging from six months to a year. The contracts or programmes are designed to attract experienced women with career gaps and young children, by offering flexi-services, work-from-home options, day-care and even pick-and-drop facilities. In short, they provide talented and qualified mothers with young children a much- needed support system and the opportunity to balance work and family.


While the bar is high for returnees, women feel it allows them a more level-playing field by not questioning their decision to leave. It also allows them to assess company culture and pace, and their decision to commit to a full-time job. Despite the fact that the programme gives women the chance to relearn skills and ease in to the process, its critics feel that returnships exploit the low confidence of these women and the perceived lack of ability and skill.

While the bar is high for returnees, women feel it allows them a more level-playing field by not questioning their decision to leave. It also allows them to assess company culture and pace, and their decision to commit to a full-time job. Despite the fact that the programme gives women the chance to relearn skills and ease in to the process, its critics feel that returnships exploit the low confidence of these women and the perceived lack of ability and skill.

For women in the same dilemma as Maria, not knowing where to start is a major obstacle. Return-to-work programmes have offered them recognition and acceptance while also sparking conversations and awareness. Discussions on other alternatives have also opened up, including seeking further education, consulting a career coach, networking, volunteering strategically and, most importantly, building a career narrative and confidently addressing the gap.

Career counsellor Alizeh Atif advises women with career gaps to remind themselves that they are not less capable today than on the day they last stepped out of work. It is crucial for women to internalise that taking the gap isn’t a mistake.

“It is normal for an employer to ask about the gap,” says Alizeh. “Do not take it personally. Be ready to address it, identify what it was and take the energy and the topic back to the role you are applying for and the qualification that makes you the right fit.”

Zara resigned halfway through her first pregnancy. “I felt it was the right decision for me and my baby,” she says. “I wanted to give my child my undivided time and attention and completely enjoy this period of his life. When I returned two years later, the break wasn’t seen as a flaw during the interview process. I personally felt it showed commitment on my part and I was proud of it. Time away from the corporate sector didn’t dumb me down. In fact, I believe my experiences as a parent made me grow as an individual.”

Alizeh recommends women to update their resumes and their skill sets through certificate programmes and online learning such as Harvard Extension, MIT OpenCourseware, Linkedin Learning and Udemy to build a trajectory. “Being up-to-date and constantly investing in yourself will show employers that you are a go-getter.” Recruiters suggest opting for a functional or chronological resume, listing your volunteer work and part-time assignments that were completed during the sabbatical.

The journey to re-enter takes time and is currently changing. While many employers may still have their reservations, mothers such as Maria are determined to return for a second act as a career woman.

**Names have been changed to protect the identity of the persons*

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 5th, 2019