Returning to Work After a Career Break: The GOOD News

Carol Fishman Cohen, Co-founder, iRelaunch writes: Regardless of her intent, Judith Warner’s NYT Magazine article “The Mid Career Time Out (Is Over)” is causing readers to conclude that taking a career break leads inevitably to divorce, misery and lower pay.  Not only is this conclusion negative and demoralizing, but it’s not true. Taking a career break most certainly doesn’t mean professional suicide. Returning to work is not easy, so I won’t sugarcoat the issue.  But it is possible.

Returning to work: Good news about returning to work after a career break

My business partner Vivian Steir Rabin and I have seen and helped thousands of women (and men) return to work after career breaks ranging from one to 20 years.  We did it ourselves: Vivian after seven years at home with five kids and I after 11 years at home with four kids.

Yet, looking only at the portrayals of the three individuals Warner features, it is easy to understand why readers come away afraid to take career breaks.  While an issue of this importance will not be settled by dueling case studies, they can be instructive.  Our company iRelaunch has compiled hundreds of successful career reentry stories. These stories chronicle just some of the diverse ways people have returned to work after long career breaks, most often happily and with marriages intact.

For those returning to work following a divorce, many have found their successful return and financial independence to be a source of strength.  Our iRelaunch case studies should allay the concern expressed by some, such as Refinery 29’s Neha Gandi in her post “Are We Screwed When We Leave to Have Babies,” that “we never get to hear from the women who re-acclimated relatively easily into the workforce after a few years, as planned.”

Among the specific risks Warner highlights, reduced compensation following a career break is near the top.  On a superficial level, she’s right.  The Center for Talent Innovation’s Sylvia Ann Hewlett found that women suffer a compensation hit of 37% following a career break of three years or longer.  Research by Harvard’s Claudia Goldin produced similar results.  Yet, lurking behind the numbers are important life decisions that reveal a more complicated picture, particularly among the many returners who intentionally accept lower compensation after a career break.

Is reduced compensation a problem for the former investment banker who no longer wants to work around the clock or the physician who now prefers predictable office hours in a clinic to rushing to the hospital for emergencies?  Having young children or elderly parents can change the work-life calculus. The desire for a less stressful job, the decision to assume a more junior role to ease back to work slowly, or the realization that transitioning to a new field might be preferable may cause women to accept lower compensation.  While each of these life decisions involves earning less, that’s obviously not the whole story.  In many cases, the lower paid position may actually make the returning worker more happy, not less. These intentional decisions are not failure stories, but successes.

As an aside, while I’m guessing Warner didn’t mean to do so, she touches on a key career reentry strategy that led to the successful hiring of one of her subjects. Warner recounts how Sheilah O’Donnel runs into a former Oracle colleague and finds that “her reputation – 11 years out – was still intact.”  That fact is one of the least well-known, but most critical aspects of career breaks: that people’s view of you is frozen in time. They remember you as you were, even if your view of yourself has diminished over time. That’s why it is so important to get in touch with people from the past, people with whom you worked and went to school. Not only can it provide a huge confidence boost, but it often leads to job offers, as in the case of Ms. O’Donnel.

Each woman who decides to take a career break does so because of a unique set of factors. It is impossible to generalize from three people’s experiences whether it is the right move for you. Do it with your eyes open to the potential issues of balance in spousal relationships, erosion of confidence, financial dependence, and the challenges of reentry. But also enjoy the time spent caring for children if that is why you are taking a career break.

Ideally, you will want to keep your hand in your field while on career break by doing special projects, covering maternity leaves, or finding pro bono assignments. If this is not realistic for you, focus on maintaining your professional network, even with only occasional contact. When the time is right for you to return, draw inspiration and instruction from those who have successfully returned to work before you.  As more people make the transition back, returning to work, the stigma attached to taking career breaks will lessen and it will only get easier.



  1. says

    Interesting post. I work in fields where this hasn’t applied to me, but I’d be curious about the problems specific to gaps in work history as it relates to academia. My brothers both feel pressure to not take breaks to work on their own research because academia is unforgiving in that regard.

    • Anonymous says

      Korinthia, It depends on the area of academic research. If scientific research, the NIH has a career reentry grant for people who have been away from the lab bench from 2 to 8 years. It has to be attached to an existing NIH grant. Also in our iRelaunch Success Stories section under “Returning in Academia” we have several stories of people who have returned to tenure track professorships after short and long career breaks. Specifically, see Liz Brown and Margaret Rayman’s stories. In the U.K. the Daphne Jackson Foundation funds two year scientific research fellowships for “returners”. Most are women, but a few, like Sami Kafala (you can see his story under returning to science and technology) who returned to nuclear physics research after 5 years at home with his 5 kids, are men.

        • says

          Thanks for the information! The impression I get from my brothers–who are both in science–is that it’s not so much the institutional rules in place, but the widespread rejection of fellow colleagues who distrust that you can be up to date on the current research if you step back at all. (I’m in violin making and classical music where “up to date” isn’t a factor–simply keeping your skill set up is.) I will track down those stories and pass them along. Thanks for the response.

  2. says

    What kind of gets overlooked in these discussions are what happens to the men; I worked for over 20 years in a corporation that was continually downsizing. Many men that were on a trajectory to higher levels of management were also derailed in their careers and ended up as “project managers” in a cube. I guess I’m trying to draw a parallel between a woman who dropped out of the workforce and a man who stayed in but also saw their career aspirations limited by economics. Maybe not an apt or fair comparison but…anecdotally, it seemed many would have loved the option to stay home and tinker! So maybe future generations should have high-powered female types married to at-home tinkering males!

  3. Carpool Goddess says

    Good information that needs to be shared with younger women to avoid some of the pitfalls many women experience returning to the workforce.

  4. says

    I would love to take a career break. My fear is that I would never want to go back. I also think it would be hard to get back in at my level. But then I don’t have a lot of confidence.

  5. says

    Very good post. I have been out of work since 2009 and I find it very hard to return to the work force in my field because so many people are in my field of work that I use to do (customer service, administrative assistant, etc) I find that the pay is the same as what I was making when I was in high school so I opt to just start my own business in a field that has taken me in a new direction.

  6. Eleanor says

    I took 7 years off work to stay with my youngest child, now in college. After he left home my husband got assigned to Europe for a couple of years. We are now back in the States and I am having MAJOR confidence issues. I am a statistician but have had little opportunity to work in my field for the last 7 years. Trying to get my skills updated – big data, hadoop, sql. etc. etc. I am confident I can learn new skills. What is daunting is the certain age discrimination I will certainly face when I apply for a job. Yeah yeah yeah, I know everyone denies it, but it is a FACT that older workers are discriminated against – especially here in Silicon Valley. I am networking with previous colleagues but even they are telling me they fear losing their jobs as they get older. I initially thought of only working part-time but now I think I will have to take on a full time position just to get my feet back into the workplace. Suggestions on how to ease back into the working world appreciated. Willing to volunteer as long as I learn new skills – surely there is a non-profit out there who might need a temporary data analyst?

    • says

      Eleanor, networking, which you are already doing, and sharpening your skills, which you understand the importance of, are good first steps. How to build and keep your confidence level high enough to engage in a job hunt is a challenge for everyone. Not sure if this might help you but we received a notice of this conference that you might want to take a look at. Connect•Work•Thrive Return to Work Conference. The all-day conference will take place Wednesday November 6th, 2013 at NestGSV, Inc. in Redwood City, CA. Vivian Rabin will be one of the speakers.

      • Eleanor says

        Thank you Grown and Flown, for letting me know – I do keep getting emails about this workshop. I’m sorry but I don’t believe in paying $200 for these “self-help” conferences. The chances of possibly networking with people in my field would be slim. The thing to do would be to keep applying for jobs, networking AND interviewing – practise makes perfect. The good news is – as you can probably tell, I am getting my confidence back, especially since I just turned down a job that I thought was not a good fit. :-)


  1. Returning to Work After a Career Break: The GOO... says:

    […] Carol Fishman Cohen, Co-founder, iRelaunch writes: Regardless of her intent, Judith Warner’s NYT Magazine article “The Mid Career Time Out (Is Over)” is causing readers to conclude that taking a career break leads inevitably to divorce, misery and…  […]