Rethinking career breaks: it’s time to ditch the misconceptions

Once considered a maternity-leave peril, are career breaks actually a valuable chance for reflection and upskilling? By addressing the stereotypes and stigmas, are back-to-work programmes for women changing corporate culture for the benefit of all?

‘Career-suicide’. ‘Mummy-brains’. ‘Hard to come back from’. The gendered stereotypes surrounding career-breaks are as stark as they are misinformed. The University of St Gallen is challenging such misconceptions through its ‘Women Back to Business’ (WBB) executive education programme. Why is such a course needed in today’s marketplace? Consider that women account for 44.7 per cent of employees at S&P 500 companies yet only 5.4 per cent of their CEOs. With more women than ever before gaining tertiary qualifications, what’s disrupting their path between graduation and promotion to the top corporate job?

Patricia Widmer manages the WBB Programme at the university of St. Gallen

In Switzerland the segregation of family and workplace roles remains very conservative, according to WBB Programme Head Patricia Widmer from the university of St. Gallen. It is mainly women who take time off from the paid workforce to raise children or care for elderly relatives. Bridging the gap between women professionals and the paid workforce is where WBB steps in.

Diversity is not going to work if it’s not inclusive – and that has to be embedded in the culture.

Patricia Widmer

A German-language programme was launched in 2008 to promote the return of women to skilled positions within the Swiss workforce. About five years ago Widmer joined the university to launch an English-language version. “The population in Switzerland has become more and more international,” Widmer explains. “Starting an English-language executive level program at the University taps into a huge hidden talent pool of qualified women in the international community that recruiters may otherwise not have access to.”

A case in point
Maria Musto, a lawyer from Argentina by profession, has just completed her final module of the WBB programme, which was held at corporate partner Julius Baer’s offices in Zurich.

The lawyer Maria Musto completed WBB while pregnant with her second child

Based in Zurich herself, Musto is part of the expat community in Switzerland, is raising her children here and took a break to rethink her direction in the workplace. As her situation highlights, WBB caters for returning mothers and those looking to increase their Swiss networks or reposition their career. Participants also include women who’ve taken a break due to health-related reasons.

If you are happy with what you are doing you can give much more – you are not working, you are contributing.

Maria Musto

Clear that the time was right to refocus on her professional career, Musto completed WBB while pregnant with her second child. Her priorities were to reposition her career in the field of family wealth management and to strike a more holistic balance between professional and personal life. “First you need to be happy, then you can take care of the people you are surrounded by, including your job and work environment,” she explains. “If you are happy with what you are doing you can give much more – you are not working, you are contributing.”

WBB offers group and individual coaching sessions and Musto utilised these to refine her ‘re-entry’ plan. To forward her career repositioning, she also completed a three-month returnship in the fiduciary teams of Julius Baer. Despite starting with clearly defined goals, Musto found the programme’s benefits extended way beyond the new knowledge and practical experience she gained. “I started believing in myself again, in my strengths,” she explains. “The programme helped me to trust all my skills, regain and re-boost my confidence and to go back to the market and ask for what I want.”

The power of networking and structure
When it comes to human resources, Widmer believes that structuring promotion practices and rethinking recruitment can help overcome behavioural biases. “Scientific studies show that whenever a process is not structured, stereotypes ring true,” Widmer says. “We often hear that women get promoted because of their performance and that men get promoted because of their potential… and there is the bias right there.” She calls on recruiters to rethink the way they view career breaks on CVs, pointing out that many women engage in volunteer or freelance work during this period, developing new skill sets that companies ultimately benefit from.

And what about when jobs don’t go through the official channels but via word-of-mouth?

According to Widmer around 75 per cent of jobs in Switzerland are never advertised but filled through personal networks

A key message of WBB is the power of networking, with participants encouraged to speak-up, to become visible and to tap into their own connections. “People often say ‘I don’t have a network’ but everyone has a network,” Widmer explains. “Your neighbour, your tennis club, the day-care center – that’s all someone’s network but is often overlooked.”  

A win for all
With retirement ages creeping out and an aging population to care for, it is very likely that an increasing number of professionals may opt to reposition their career path or take a break to care for elderly relatives. By addressing biases and calling out stereotypes, programmes such as WBB are moving the overall diversity agenda forward. “When we talk about diversity we also talk about different generations, race, disability and about different educations,” Widmer explains. “Diversity is not going to work if it’s not inclusive – and that has to be embedded in the culture. You can have vision and strategies and what have you, but, as we all know, culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

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