What Happens When You Take A Career Break

Have you ever thought about taking a few months off from work?

If you have, you’re not alone. According to recruiting firm Robert Walters, more than half of the working Malaysian women they surveyed have taken a career break at some point in their lives – mainly for maternity or family reasons.

But doing this can really damage your career – even though it shouldn’t. Here’s why.

Why do women take career breaks?

For many Malaysian women who have had a child, taking a break from work is almost inevitable. Pregnancy and childbirth can be a long, difficult process, and women’s bodies (and minds!) don’t always bounce right back. Combine that with the challenges of raising a newborn child for the first time, and the standard 60-day maternity leave period in Malaysia seems too short.

If a woman decides to go back to work after a break, Robert Walters’ survey showed, they do so out of financial necessity. But getting re-employed isn’t easy.

What happens when women take a break?

Once a woman makes the decision to leave the workforce for a while, it gets much harder to go back.

Khazanah Research Institute’s State of Households report from last year is telling. Take a look at the graphs of labour force participation below.

Source: Khazanah Research Institute

Women aged between 25 to 29 years are most likely to be working or looking for work – 72% of them to be exact. But their participation in the workforce decreases steadily after the age of 29 – which is usually right when they start getting married and having chilren – and continues as they get older. (By the way, we don’t see this with men – their employment rate holds steady throughout their lives until retirement age.)

Compare this to the graphs of Japan and Korea.

Source: Khazanah Research Institute

There’s the same peak of participation of young women when they first enter the workforce, then a drop as they marry and have children. But after that, there is another peak as they re-enter the workforce when their children are older.

In Malaysia, this second peak doesn’t even exist. Once they leave the workforce, Malaysian women almost never go back. Why?

Employers don’t always want to hire women after a break.

More than half of the Malaysian managers surveyed by Robert Walters had not hired returning women in the past year. A 2016 study by PricewaterhouseCoopers showed that some employers believe that a woman’s skills deteriorate during their break and are unable to contribute as well upon returning to the workforce.

Dishearteningly, these perceptions intensify if a woman has taken a break due to maternity leave. In a different survey of 500 managers, a third of them believed that women get worse at their jobs and less committed after returning from maternity leave.

Taking a break can set back your career.

As for women who do manage to make it back into the workforce, they report facing a penalty for their break in the form of unequal pay and a lack of career advancement opportunities.

According to Robert Walters’ survey of employers, less than 5% of returning women were offered a more senior or even similar role in their company regardless of their previous experience. For these women, taking a break effectively set back their careers.

“Women can ultimately end up feeling that they are no longer considered as important members of the workforce. This message is communicated directly or indirectly through various modes – they may get overlooked for promotion or given less responsibility for key projects, or even stigmatised for utilising flexi-work options.”

–  Cheryl-Ann Szetoh, Associate Director of  Commerce, Robert Walters Singapore

For some women, this discrimination can be so unfulfilling for that they end up leaving their jobs for good, according to a study by the Harvard Business School.

What should employers do?

Yet with the significant skill and talent shortages we face in these times, employers can’t afford to neglect the talents and contributions of women, write Robert Walters.

They suggest that employers should view career breaks as opportunities where women can learn new skills and gain experience outside of the office environment. Returning women are an “invaluable group of talent” and more should be done to keep them in the workforce.

In Malaysia, the government agrees – they actively try to support the reemployment of returning women by introducing tax deductions for firms to train women returning to the workforce.

What should you do?

Don’t feel guilty if you need to take a break. It’s not easy to be pregnant or run a household or raise a child (or all of the above) and work full-time.

If you do decide to take a career break, there are a few things you can do while you’re away to keep yourself employable if you need to return.

  • Try to keep abreast of issues in your field of work. Set up some Google Alerts, or use an RSS-aggregating service like Feedly to easily catch up on what’s going on.
  • Take an online course to pick up new skills or update old ones. Many courses from reputable universities on almost any subject imaginable are available for free on platforms like edX and Coursera. If you wish, you can even pay a fee to have your course certified so you can put it on your CV!
  • Most importantly, don’t lose touch with your contacts and work network. If and when you choose to return to the workforce, knowing a few people will make it much easier than having to start afresh.