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Women back to work

Between marriage and childbirth, women are forced to take career breaks more often and for longer than men.

By Yusra Salim |
PUBLISHED March 12, 2023

Women take career breaks more often than men, usually to have children and to take care of them. After childbirth, working mothers take an extended break, sometimes as long as two years. Re-entering the workforce after a prolonged career break is a challenge for anyone, but women also have trouble returning to work because employers frown at the possibility of day-offs to care of kids.

For more than 20 years, the female labour force participation in urban Pakistan has stubbornly rested among the lowest in the world, at around 10%. According to data and research conducted in the country by the World Bank, there are several social factors that play a core role in keeping the women workforce numbers so low.

Getting a job and sustaining it for long is a crucial factor in South-Asian households where women are supposed to manage household chores with their jobs. To help women in these matters or to make them financially stable, many programmes have been launched to provide a platform where women can prove themselves in their respective career fields.

Social and domestic impediments

Women find it difficult to rejoin the workforce because of several social aspects, one being low level of education. Women with better education find it easier to enter the system, but with no formal education, it is harder to re-enter and remain in the workforce.

Safety issues or financial limitations, low pay and the additional burn of domestic duties, dropping out of school, fear of opposition from their families and communities for pursuing careers outside home, and other social issues are the reasons why women leave work and never find their way back.

Dreams on hold

One such example is of 34-year-old, Fakhra Atif who ended up putting her Master’s degree on hold after getting married in 2010. Enrolled at Islamabad’s National University of Modern Languages (NUML) at the time, Atif couldn’t resist her parents’ insistence to pause her higher education and relocate to Karachi.

After marriage, Atif tried to convince her husband to let her resume her degree. “But my husband too questioned why… why did I have to finish education when I was married now,” she recalled. “I didn’t know why I wanted to resume my degree… I just did not want to leave it incomplete,” the mother of two explained.

Emotional support

Fiver years into her marriage, the pause Atif placed on her education and dreams began developing into depression. “I always had an interest in books. After I had my kids, I started appearing for CSS where I cleared 11 subjects but couldn’t complete it,” she shared.

Her dedication, however, changed her husband’s attitude as he began pushing her to apply for another Master’s degree. After a gap of eight years, Atif enrolled at IBA, where she began excelling from the get go. One of the top scorers in her batch, she soon secured a scholarship.

“I still remember 2019… when I stepped into the city campus of IBA, my heart pounded heavy at each step,” she said, sharing the difficulty of resuming education after a long gap.

The mother of two also kept quiet in the initial days of the course because everyone else in her batch was a recent graduate. “Not one of my classmates had children. I felt unfit and wondered if I had made a mistake,” Atif recounted.

With time, as she mingled in her class, things got better on the social and emotional front. “But the long gap meant some aspects were very different from what I was used to. For instance, where we turned in assignments in person in 2010, everything was computer-oriented now,” she said, adding that it took her a while to get the hang of things.

Since completing her Masters, Atif has gone from strength to strength. Starting her career as a freelancer on Fiverr, she came across an opportunity that she couldn’t let go of. “Without experience in any corporate organisation or communications department I was offered a job at the biggest private hospital. Today I am serving as the communication specialist at the department of surgery at AKUH,” she shared proudly. Since graduating, she has also authored books.

Returning to work

After working for five years as a manager of projects and planning with The Citizens Foundation, 33-year-old Anam Mansoor, bid adieu to her job as she had to leave the country for a year. But destiny had other plans for her. When she planned to return to work she was expecting a baby boy, because of which she had to prolong her career break. “The idea of applying and looking for options is tough when you are planning to return to the grind after a few years’ gap, but now I have a toddler to take care of too,” says Mansoor.

She wanted to rejoin the workforce, because since she graduated from her university, work has always been her solace. But after a gap of around three years, it was difficult to find something that could match her experience and educational background. “Whenever I went for interviews, I was treated as a fresher and offered low-paid, entry-level jobs, despite my five years of work experience before I took the break,” she says, adding that she does understand that in the last three years, things have changed due to Covid and work ethics have taken a 180-degree turn, but then again offering an entry-level job to an experienced person is somewhat an exploitation of the situation.

A breakthrough

The Jazz returnship programme is a platform that provides a space for women who take career breaks at some point in their lives and return to work later. Presently, twelve women have been selected for its ‘She’s Back ― Women Returnship Programme.’ This is an extensive six-month programme for women who have taken a professional hiatus and are returning to their corporate roles.

These women were selected for the programme through a rigorous six-month training process, and have been given roles in a variety of departments including People Experience, Product Development, Legal, Sales, Ethics and Compliance, and Network Supervision. Women included in the programme are those who had to put their jobs on hold for more than one and a half years in order to have children, take care of family members, and pursue further education and other reasons. By fostering their confidence, re-engaging them in the workforce, enhancing their technical and functional abilities, and giving them access to other learning opportunities, the programme supports their professional advancement.

Career punishment

A resume gap shouldn’t be career punishment. Instead, it could just be a golden ticket to get back into the workforce.

After several applications and rejections or not getting up-to-the-mark work, one day Mansoor saw an ad on LinkedIn about the returnship programme. She applied for it and now she serves on expert level in the programme. “Coming back to work was a challenge in itself, given the fact that are many personal aspects such as leaving behind my child at daycare or worrying about working in the competitive environment,” says Mansoor.

“Going back to work after a gap is not only difficult in terms of finding a suitable position to match your skills, but there is a whole batch of new interview questions to be tackled. “What will you do when your child gets sick because he is a toddler or are you planning to expand your family anytime soon as that requires maternity leave? Sometimes, the questions are discouraging and quite defeating, which eventually put women in a difficult position that brings on feelings of guilt associated with not being able to give kids proper quality time or doing justice on the domestic front for that matter,” she says.

Flexi and friendly

Mansoor is happy that the Jazz returnship programme on the other hand was designed to help women who are in the same boat. “The line manager at my workplace is very considerate if my son is not well or I have any domestic problems. The programme also has the leverage to work from home for a specific number of days,” adds Mansoor, who has worked in four different organisations before joining here.

Like Mansoor, there are many women who have had to go through similar circumstances of being career-oriented or passion-driven at one time and having to leave their dream jobs to pursue something important in their lives, but never being able to find a way back to work.

Mehak Irshad left her job to take a year’s gap to look after her newborn child. Since Covid was on the rise, she decided to stay home to prevent exposure to her newborn. “I started working right after my graduation in 2013,”says Irshad. “In our family, we are taught to be financially independent and that is why never going back to work was not an option.”

Desperate to resume work, after a gap of two and a half years, Irshad started to apply for various positions at several organisations, but despite her work experience of around eight years with several NGOs and the British Council, the responses were far and few,. “Whenever I was called for an interview, they would ask why took a break for two and a half years,” she says. “I would tell them the reason, but it only invited more questions and comments that I wouldn’t be able to work with 100% dedication or would take a lot of leave to take care of my child. They also thought that my focus would be split between the child at home and work issues which could be problematic.”

Irshad who had been a passionate working woman started applying for a job, when she was still in her last trimester, so as to be able to return to work as soon as possible. Some organisations called her in for an interview. “I was selected for a job and they wanted me to join right away,” she says. “But when I told them that I would require maternity leave soon, they took back their offer despite me agreeing to a shorter leave. Things didn’t work out with them.”

A confidence boost

After her child was born, she wanted to spend some time looking after him. But it wasn’t long before Irshad started to apply again. It was then that a friend of mine pushed her to apply for ‘She’s Back’.

“Initially, my plan was to get into the system of working again, but joining the returnship programme helped me regain my confidence,” she says. “Most women take career gaps to have a kid or two. This programme takes into consideration that when we rejoin work, there are kids at home and they do fall ill or have other requirements for which mothers need time off. So we can work from home for two days a week.”

In Irshad’s case, she makes sure that no one from her team calls and disturbs her while she is occupied with her son during school hours.

There are also some aspects that women need to compromise on. “Right now, I am working at a position that does not match my experience and despite this I had to go through the training process,” says Irshad. “But it’s a permanent position, so I feel secure, and the programme is empowering, because it brings back the lost confidence in women who are returning to work after a gap.”