"I was quite stressed and nervous. I was most concerned that I wouldn't be able to get all the computer science together," Alina* says. The reason for Alina's fear was her career break and her decision to end it. For the past eight years, the now 41-year-old has dedicated her full time to her family. Since September 2021, Alina has been back in the workforce: in a different industry, in a different position and in a lower workload than before her family break. When she returned, her children were seven and five years old. "I had more time and a desire to work again," she says.
Alina's career path is hardly unique. In Switzerland, almost 20 percent of mothers stay at home with their first child and give up their gainful employment. With the second child, the figure is as high as 30 percent. The proportion of women who leave the workforce has decreased in recent years. At the same time, however, the number of mothers with part-time jobs has increased. For example, 90 percent of mothers with children under 13 work part-time, and almost three quarters of them work less than 70 percent of the time. Unsurprisingly, fatherhood has hardly any effect on men's employment. For the most part, they continue to work the same hours as before the children.
Many fail due to compatibility issues
One of the main reasons why mothers put their careers behind their families is the crux of reconciliation. For many, it is difficult or only possible with a lot of effort to reconcile family and career. Too few childcare places, high childcare costs, poor wages or too little flexibility in terms of working hours and location are among the biggest challenges.
The issue of compatibility came up for Alina as well, although it was not the main reason for her decision, as she emphasizes: "I wanted to stay at home and spend as much time as possible with my children. My career wasn't that important to me." At the same time, certain external circumstances would have reinforced her decision: Alina's husband worked irregular hours, sometimes on weekends as well as at night; the nearest daycare center was a distance away, there was none in the village where she lived; her family didn't live nearby and couldn't assist with childcare; and most of her income would have gone toward daycare costs. "If I had worked, it would have been difficult to organize. I didn't want that stress, especially since it wouldn't have been worth it financially."
As Alina's children grew up and were away more often due to kindergarten and school, she felt the need for an intellectual challenge. She found it in an SME. There she works 40 percent in accounting. "This is a new world for me and also not my area of expertise at all. I used to work in marketing and events for a large company. I had nothing to do with accounting," she explains.
The current job came to her, she recalls. "Through my husband, I learned that the company was looking for people to work in administration and accounting." Alina met with the managing director for an interview. Then nothing happened for a while. The conditions had not fit on the part of the company. Almost a year later, the managing director contacted her again and offered her a job in accounting. "I wanted something new, but I also had specific requirements. To make it work with the family, I wanted a 40 percent workload and no set workdays." That's what she got.
A return to work with setbacks
The majority of mothers who decide to re-enter the workforce do so when the children spend more time away from home. The average family break is five years. That's according to a federal report that looks at women's re-entry into the workforce. For 85 percent of these mothers, the most important reason for re-entering the workforce is to balance family life. For 58 percent, financial reasons play a role, for example because they are dependent on income due to a divorce or separation.
It is also common for women to re-enter a lower-level position after having children, and therefore take a step back on the career ladder. According to the federal report, well-educated women with children often take on roles that are below their qualifications. Women with lower qualifications, on the other hand, often work in precarious jobs. These include temporary positions or hourly wages without a contractually agreed number of hours.
Women's CVs fall through the cracks
The fact that Alina was able to re-enter the working world and make her demands so easily is rather an exception. For many women who have been away from the labor market for several years, re-entry is a challenge. However, this is less the fault of the women than of the employers and the structures and processes in the companies. After all, many companies don't take CVs of mothers into account. "Non-linear CVs and career breaks are not always easy for employers because they are the exception," says Kristin Fuchs. She is responsible for the "Women back to Business" program at the University of St. Gallen. The program supports highly qualified women in their return to work and their professional development. Particularly at large companies, where resumes are often sorted out in a first round by artificial intelligence, it is difficult for women to get a foot in, she says. "If the resumes don't include the stations that are in demand, if the skills don't match exactly, or if there are gaps, female applicants have little chance. They drop out of the application process early on," says Kristin Fuchs. Daniela Haze Stöckli, partner and coach at the career agency mindyourstep, confirms this. "The most important thing when re-entering the workforce is therefore to ask yourself in advance: What do I want? What can I do? What do I bring to the table? You have to identify your core competencies and clearly map them out in your resume and cover letter."
Networking and continuing education during family time
It's the same story with job interviews. "You must effectively communicate yourself and your skills. That's the only way to convince," says Haze Stöckli. But especially for women who have not been active in the workforce for a long time, this glow is not so easy. Many lack self-confidence. They don't feel competent enough. "I would never have dared to negotiate my salary hard," Alina also recalls. After an eight-year break, she says, she was simply happy to get a job at all.
Kristin Fuchs knows situations like this. She recommends that women who are unsure look at their own abilities as objectively as possible or have someone else list them. "You have to see what you've accomplished during family time and derive strengths from that. For example, many mothers are efficient, can prioritize and are well organized. These are all strengths that companies also value," Fuchs said. Both Haze Stöckli and Fuchs recommend staying professionally active in some way during family time, maintaining a business network, continuing your education or volunteering. Or even better, to remain gainfully employed on a small scale. This is also important for retirement provision - because only those who are gainfully employed can pay into the second and third pillars.
Companies must rethink - also because of the shortage of skilled workers
On the other hand, the two experts also see companies as having a responsibility. They need to be aware that careers, especially those of women, are not linear. "If companies want the best talent and diversity, they must be open to female career paths, among other things," says Fuchs.
Particularly in light of the current economic situation and the looming shortage of skilled workers, women's career re-entry is becoming increasingly important. According to a recent study, more than 200,000 jobs will remain unfilled in Switzerland by the end of 2023, and a full 365,000 by 2025. Various business organizations - for example, the employers' association - are calling for better use to be made of the potential of women and mothers in particular.
This includes companies looking differently at the gaps created by family work. "Today, if someone has traveled around the world for two years, everyone thinks that's cool. But if a woman has spent two years taking care of the kids, then that puts her at a disadvantage. That can't be," says Haze Stöckli.
Alina has now been back at work for more than a year. She does not regret her decision to devote eight years to her family, just as she does not regret her return to work. "We have found a path that is ideal for our family. I couldn't imagine it any better right now.”
Are you investing all of your time to your family right now? Do you wish to return to the workforce? These are the tips from the experts.
What should I keep in mind during family time?
- Manage your network: Keep cultivating your relationships with coworkers. This can be done over a casual coffee or lunch. There are also formal business events and functions you can attend.
- Educate yourself: Make sure you don't lose touch while working with your family. If you don't have a lot of time, evening or online courses may be a good option.
- Volunteer: Volunteering can also help you develop skills, build a network and work on your visibility.
What jobs am I eligible to apply for?
Think about the field and workload you'd like to work in. In general, you can apply for roles that correspond to your position prior to taking family leave. You can, of course, apply for a promotion. "Women who stayed on the ball during their break certainly don't have to spell back," Daniela Haze Stöckli comments.
How should I design my CV?
Here it is important to know where you are applying: if you are applying to large corporations, you should be aware that the CVs will most likely be sorted out by artificial intelligence rather than a human in the first round. To feed the algorithm, you should do the following:
- repeat the keywords from the job advertisement
- make your CV as complete as possible. This can be achieved by listing any further training or activities during family time.
If you are applying for a job at an SME, you can be a little more creative with your CV. Here it is more important that you stand out from the crowd - for example, with an appealing aesthetic design.
Generally important for your CV:
- Mention your break, but also mention everything you did during that period (volunteering, continuing education, networking, etc.).
- Highlight your strengths, particularly those relevant to the position you are applying for.
- List your top five skills that can benefit the company.
- Activate your network for references.
- Seek help from a career counselor if needed.
What should I include in my cover letter?
The purpose of the motivation letter is to introduce yourself and explain to the firm why you are the best candidate for the position. You can discuss your talents, skills, and accomplishments. You should also briefly mention family time here. "You should not and do not have to hide these. It's important to mention it and build on it," adds Haze Stöckli. For instance, "I dedicated four years to my family, and now I'm ready and highly motivated to make a difference in the working world again."
What should I prepare for the interview?
- Internalize your elevator pitch: the interview is all about you as a person. You explain who you are, what you've done in the past, what your main strengths are, why you're passionate about this job, and what benefits you bring to the company. "This part of the interview has to sit; this is where you can shine," Daniela Haze explains.
- Address your family time briefly, but do not justify yourself. Mention how long you devoted to your family and why you did so. Then elaborate on what you did during that time to keep the ball rolling, why you're ready to jump back in and the benefits you bring to the table. The second part should be longer than the first.
- Practice your pitch with a professional or friend beforehand.
- Make a video of your elevator pitch and see how you come across.
- Think about good questions about the company or the job.
- You don't have to answer questions about family planning or childcare arrangements.
- Think about how much you would like to earn and find out in advance what is typical in the industry.
How do I deal with rejections?
Basically, you should not be discouraged by rejections. They are simply part of the application process. Nevertheless, it is worth analyzing them a bit:
- When in the process do I get the rejections? If you are not invited to interviews several times, there is probably something wrong with your CV. Check it carefully or have it checked by an expert. If you are rejected several times following the interview, you may need to improve your appearance. Practice the interview with someone and be critical.
- Ask why you got a rejection, especially after an interview. Asking questions is like a debriefing that can help you a lot. You can learn from it for the next interview.
Daniela Haze Stöckli: "In the end, you always need a bit of luck to get a job. If it doesn't work out, you should never be discouraged. On the contrary, you should keep at it, ask for the reasons for the rejections and present yourself even more focused and clearly."