Business Leaders, Do You Mind The Gap?

Advice and strategies for women returning to the workforce, and the companies who will hire them.
byLydia Rueger Shoaf

I’ll never forget Karen, the woman whose cubicle was across from mine during my last full-time year in the workforce, before I left to stay home with my first child. We worked together at a publishing company, me as an editor, and she in a much-needed administrative position. As a former teacher and mother of three older children, she helped prepare me for my next life stage. She was mature and professional as she engaged with our colleagues (more so than myself), confident, intelligent, and efficient at tasks. She had spent many years out of the workforce staying home with her kids; she mentored me naturally, and her presence enriched my work life.

As I pursue returning to work after being home with my kids for many years, I think about Karen. I hope that I might get a chance to love my neighbor by encouraging a younger colleague like she did for me while using my God-given gifts in the workforce. At the same time, I wonder whether companies will be supportive of my return with professional gaps on my resume and less knowledge of technology. 

“I’d love to see Christian business leaders take the lead in this area,” says Katy Rogers, Global Learning & Development and Diversity Manager for HOPE International. “But it’s going to mean a culture shift in some organizations.” That culture shift can begin with business leaders who strive to offer more opportunities for women returnees.

Advice for Business Leaders

Don’t write people off for resume gaps. Previously, Rogers was taught that gaps on a resume were a red flag when hiring employees, but now, she encourages her own HR department to move away from this stigma. “There are both pros and cons to their time away,” she says. Rogers says employers are nervous to ask about resume gaps, and to help, she suggests women talk about their situation in a cover letter. “Without getting too personal, talk about how you grew [during your time away], professionally and personally.”

Understand the value of part-time work. At Rogers’ last job, she saw many women working at higher levels for 30 hours a week, because the company saw value in their life experience. “Technical skills are trainable, especially now,” she says. She’d like to see more business leaders advocate for part-time opportunities for returnees, and evaluate employees more on their results and less on time spent in the office.

Consider culture and character over competence. Alli Horst, staffing consultant at Core Ventures, a Denver-based recruiting firm, believes that “diversity in leadership is a win for a company,” adding that women at different life stages are going to connect with different kinds of clients. The reason Horst thinks many companies might overlook some job candidates trying to reenter the workforce is because “they are thinking of what fires they are trying to put out right then.” Though it’s beneficial when employees can hit the ground running, she urges employers to remember that “people can catch up quickly. Ask yourself, ‘Can I see this person here in six months to a year?’ When we think about who our best hires have been, if there is a good fit for both culture and character, that wins every time.”

Be OK with the questions women ask. “When a woman asks, ‘how flexible is this job?’ don’t hear that they have kids around [while working] or that they won’t be focused. Check that bias in the interview process,” Horst advises. “It’s sometimes hard for women to name what we want, because there are 60 filters we are running through, and there are so many caveats.” Employers might notice this hesitation and wonder if a woman really wants the job, when they are just trying to ensure it would be a good fit. 

Suggestions for Returning Job Seekers

On the flip side, there are both practical and theoretical ways female returnees can prepare themselves for work, as our experts suggest.

Don’t underestimate skills you’ve honed outside of the office. Both Rogers and Horst have noticed many traits in women returning to the workforce that are beneficial long-term, even if these skills weren’t gained on the job. “I’ve seen confidence mixed with humility. Speaking in broad strokes, they seem to know what they don’t know. They’ve stopped pretending, they stopped trying to please everyone, and they understand the value of open and honest feedback, because they’ve had more experience doing that. They are gifted in connecting people and coaching. There is breadth and depth from their own life experience,” Rogers says.

Horst sees that their “efficiency is second to none, they have the ability to prioritize, and are good at doing more in the time that was allotted.” She also appreciates their curiosity. “They are ready to use their skills and abilities and learn what’s happening.” 

Be honest about what you can offer. Rogers has seen women underpromise what they can bring to a team. “Be honest but optimistic of what you can offer, and what you can handle. Take advantage of flex work environments, while showing you can do your job. Those flex work arrangements are in place so you can do your best work,” she says.

In addition, “I think it’s also very tempting to overpromise, both in the interview and when starting. You feel you can’t be as picky, you say you can do the evening shift, you feel you need to earn your place. I’ve seen [women] try to do it all and it doesn’t go well. God designed us with limits, and the more honest we can be, the better chance there is that it will work out.” 

Rogers adds that in going back to work, “make sure you don’t replace care for your physical, mental, and spiritual health with work. It’s a lot to juggle. Lower your expectations of what you can take of, rest, and take a sabbath.” In her own life, Rogers says it’s tempting to stay up late working in the evening, “but then it’s hard for me to get up early in the morning to spend time with the Lord. I can’t do that.”

Gain knowledge of your industry. Both Rogers and Horst recommend updating your industry knowledge before you return. Get a subscription to the Harvard Business Review or other publications, depending on your field. Look into low-cost certification programs, such as ones on leadership communication. Sign up for conferences and read recommended books on business, and know the latest terminology in your field. Use the resources from organizations such as ReBoot Accel, which is dedicated to gender equity in the workplace. “Half the battle is increasing your own confidence,” says Rogers.

Update your online presence. Simply having an up-to-date LinkedIn profile can help returnees, Horst says. “Connect with people—some might not know you are thinking of reentering the workforce,” she says. Horst uses LinkedIn for her own job, when trying to find employees who are the right fit for certain companies. In conjunction with this, she suggests women seek out assessments that help them discover their strengths. This can help them name characteristics they could bring to a certain role. “I love seeing women naming what they are good at,” says Horst.

Remember the purpose of the work. As Christ followers, Rogers urges women returnees to keep Ephesians 2:10 in mind: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Ultimately, Rogers says, “It’s not for you and your accomplishments, it’s for his kingdom. You don’t need to impress the Lord. If he wants you to go back to work, he will provide the opportunity.”

When Horst thinks about women returning to work, it makes her remember the boy with two fish and five loaves, from which Jesus feeds the 5,000 (John 6). “It may seem small, but there is a lot more to offer,” Horst says. “I love the idea of offering what we have, and seeing what the Lord does with it. Let’s approach work with this idea, and see what the Lord will unfold.”


Hear more inspiration and wise counsel from career-minded women of faith, at RESET: Women, Work, and Calling 2021 on October 23. Registration is open now.

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LydiaRueger Shoaf

Lydia is an intern with Denver Institute for Faith & Work, and a freelance writer and editor.