A couple of weeks ago, I met a friend, Meera who took a 5-year break to follow her husband to Australia, when he moved there to work. With two children under the age of ten, she was fully occupied with learning to live in a country and culture that was completely different from what she knew. They returned to India a couple of years ago and Meera went back to work. I was curious about her journey back to work and we had a chat. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation.
Me: Tell us something about yourself – education, experience, etc.
Meera: Hey there! I’m a software engineer with ten years of experience in developing software on IBM mainframes. I worked for a large-ish IT Services company for around 10 years. I took a career break of 5 years to focus on family and then returned to work. Let me tell you, it was not easy. You know, when I started getting ready to return, I realized that there are so many women, engineers with my level of experience who take a career break. Marriage, trailing spouses, motherhood, and elder care are all reasons that I’ve heard.
I was ready to get back to work. The only problem was, I felt like I was starting from scratch. And I found that every returning woman I spoke with, felt the same.
Me: Women returning to work after a long career break often face a skills gap, making it essential for them to upskill. How did you handle this?
Meera: I felt like I’d been living under a rock for the past five years. When I left the workforce, everyone was still using flip phones and now it seems like everyone’s talking about AI and machine learning. I was pretty sure my old programming skills were obsolete. And even though there were openings in mainframes, I wasn’t too keen. I want to be on the cutting edge, you know? So, I started by upskilling myself. I enrolled in some online courses to update my skills and learn about the latest technologies. I also attended webinars and workshops to stay up to date with industry trends. It was challenging at first, but I soon found that it was exciting to learn new things and regain my confidence.
Let’s just say, I’m glad I didn’t forget how to use a mouse.
Me: Networking can be a powerful tool for women returning to work after a career break, as it can help them connect with potential employers, mentors, and industry peers who can provide valuable insights and support. How did you build your network?
Meera: I’ve been trying to network, but let’s be honest, it’s not easy. When you’ve been out of the workforce for a while, you don’t have the same connections you used to. And, I don’t exactly have the time or energy to attend every networking event out there. Plus, there’s always that awkward moment when you have to explain your career break. But I reached out to one of my classmates from engineering and he was super helpful when I didn’t understand some of the course material.
Me: Many Indian companies have second career programmes. Were those of any help?
Meera: Thankfully, there are some companies out there that understand the challenges women like me face when returning to work after a career break. They offer flexible work arrangements and upskilling programs to help us get back on track. It’s like a ray of hope in a sea of uncertainty.
Me: How was your first interview experience?
Meera: I was so excited when I got that email. I was jumping around and called my husband right away. I got my clothes ready for the big day, made sure I allowed for enough time and got an Uber, so I wouldn’t be stressed. Only when I was waiting to be called in, I thought, “Oh my god, what have I done? Do I remember everything I have learned in the course? But suppose they ask me something I don’t know or don’t remember? I’m going to feel such a fool!” But then I took a deep breath and reminded myself that I had the experience, skills, and knowledge to succeed. All I needed to do was relax and think before I answered.
The technical part was fine – I could answer most questions and for some, I had no clue. But one interviewer kept asking me about my family life and how I would manage work and home. It felt like he was judging me for being a woman, and not focusing on my skills and experience. I just had to stay cool and answer citing my previous ten-year stint.
Me: What was one thing that really bothered you when you got back?
Meera: One thing? I can tell you, there were so many things that bugged me. I was one of the very few women in the company when I first joined the workforce. But now, as a woman who’s been out of the workforce for a while, I feel even more like an outsider. It’s like I have to prove myself all over again. And let’s not even talk about the stereotypes I have to deal with. Yes, I can change a diaper, but I can also write code. My first boss was ten years junior to me. Extremely smart, but he had no idea how to speak to me. And it was bothering him so much, he would avoid me. And that bugged me. Finally, I took the initiative and told him, “Listen, I’m just one of your team members. I’ve been out of the workforce for ten years and you have experience in the subject. I have programming experience and life experience. Let’s just acknowledge that and be respectful of each other”. He was relieved and we got along fine. But, I understand, not many women are likely to be as direct as that. But you have to acknowledge the realities – in whatever way that works for you.
Me: So, you’ve been back at work for 8 months. What is your advice to other returning women?
Meera: Returning to work after a career break can be challenging for anybody, It is not for the faint of heart. However, with the right mindset, upskilling, networking, and support, it is possible to overcome these challenges and achieve your career goals. So, if you’re in the same boat as me, take the plunge and go for it! You’ve got this. All the Best!
But I’ve come to realize that I’m not alone. There are many other women like me out there, trying to balance family and career, trying to catch up on the latest technologies, and trying to find their place again in the industry. And, you know what? We’re pretty amazing. We may have taken a break, but we haven’t lost our skills or our ambition. We’re ready to get back in the game, and we’re ready to show the world what we’re made of.
And like Meera, you can be one of those amazing women.
indePenn coaches and prepares women on a career break returning to work, to present themselves as confident professionals.
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