In the early days of the pandemic, Liza Rodewald found herself juggling a rapidly increasing workload while also helping her four kids with online school. "It was really stressful, and I certainly wasn't the only person going through it," says Liza, founder and CEO of Instant Teams, which builds remote customer support teams for companies utilizing the talent pool of military spouses.
The pandemic upended everything about work and life, but few were more affected than working moms. The combination of school closures, new childcare demands, and work changes forced many women to choose between their job, family and school—or attempt to literally do it all. Amid 200 women last year for her fast-growing company, Liza asked her children's teachers for an alternative to the daily online schedule. "It was all just too much," she says.
Many other women found themselves putting their careers on hold because the pandemic demands were too great. Nearly 3 million women left the workforce between February and October of 2020, according to the National Women's Law Center. And the percentage of women participating in the workforce dropped to a 32-year-low.
The pandemic fallout may be extreme. But it's highlighted the tough choices women regularly face as they navigate work and family life.
While decisions to leave the workforce can impact your career trajectory, they don't need to derail it. Women who leave can find ways to stay engaged and prepare for their re-entry even as they prioritize family. That way, when it does come time to ramp up your career, you can get back on track faster and perhaps even find new opportunities you didn't anticipate.
The choices aren't always black and white.
Challenging times often require tough choices. The pandemic brought these in spades. But other more common factors—moving, having a child with special needs or an ill partner or parent, the high cost of childcare—can also prompt women to consider leaving their jobs.
For Cathy Grover, Talent Strategy and HR Business Partner Executive for PNC, the first step is to recognize that it's not always a simple leave-or-stay decision. "The thing to do is just start the conversation," Cathy says. "Women often think they have to solve it all themselves and come to their managers with the whole solution, neatly tied in a bow, but that shouldn’t have to be the case."
The fact is, you're probably not the first person struggling to balance family and work to approach your manager. Cathy recommends talking to your organization about your needs and asking how managers have approached the issue with others.
" If women undervalue their importance, they end up not negotiating for what they need at the time," she says.
The options for working moms are often more broad than people assume. At the start of the pandemic, Cat McLaughlin, Chief People Officer for the financial firm Lafayette Square, says she fielded more than a few phone calls from women who believed their only choice was to quit to care for their kids. She suggested they take a leave of absence instead. Other options, pandemic—or not: Take another position with less responsibility, job share, or ask about reducing your hours.
"People are often short-sighted," Cat says, "They're looking at a 12-month window instead of a two-to-five-year window."
"Many women have been able to step back for a few years and then come right back in, add value and even bring a new perspective.
— Cat McLaughlin, Chief People Officer, Lafayette Square.
Staying home but staying relevant
In many cases, staying home may make sense in the short-term. Fortunately, there is a lot you can do—even while taking care of children or family—to remain relevant in your field.
"Set realistic goals for what you want to achieve while you're out of the workforce keeping in mind the time you have available", says Jane Veron, CEO of The Acceleration Project (theaccelerationproject.org), which deploys professionals at all stages in their careers with small businesses in need of consulting. The consultants are primarily women who work full-time, part-time, or have stepped out of the paid workforce.
Veron recommends establishing a personal board of advisers to hold you accountable. "It is wonderful when a family member or close confidante takes a strong interest, but that's not usually enough," she says. Create a small group of friends and professional colleagues who can provide advice and feedback on your goals. Also, consider learning a new skill or maintaining a certification. Take online courses, and keep reading about your industry.
Then, find ways to put your skills to use. A break in traditional work can provide time to try something different or expand what you think you can do. Veron recalled interviewing an investment banker who worried she didn't have any skills to help a small business owner. "She had a tremendous amount to offer and ended up helping the business rethink its capital structure, which was extraordinarily valuable to that business owner," she says.
Imposter Syndrome – the feeling that you’re not qualified or deserving -- is a common barrier for women who are temporarily out of the traditional workforce. But Veron advocates for diving in—"find an opportunity, do it, regroup and reflect," she says.
Staying in contact with the work world is also helpful. Schedule regular meetups or phone calls with your former co-workers or friends in your industry. Update your profile on LinkedIn to "looking for opportunities." Even if those are only part-time, you may be surprised what comes your way.
"I want women to be empowered to know that their career is iterative and can sometimes feel circuitous, but one thing always leads to another," Veron says
The big return
Most of the women Liza hires have been in and out of the workforce because they're part of military families and move frequently. In fact, leveraging their skillsets is at the core of Instant Team's success. As you prepare to job hunt, Liza recommends creating a resume focused on skills instead of a chronological accounting of jobs. In interviews, "lead with your abilities and what you can do, instead of focusing on why you were gone," she says.
If potential employers do question a gap in the resume, honesty remains the best approach. Cat advocates authenticity. "Don't be embarrassed about it. Say you took time off for family reasons and talk about all the things you did to keep your skills up and stay engaged," she says. Once back at work, ask questions. Many women get back up to speed faster than they anticipate, Cat notes, while finding they're also far more efficient than before they left.
A career span is long and includes more than enough time to step back from a career and successfully re-enter. For Liza, helping women find flexibility for their families while progressing in their work has become a personal mission. She started her first company 16 years ago because she felt like she didn't have choices that worked with her life.
Today she wants others to know that they can find what works for them. Trying things, stepping back, taking new positions, upskilling—it's all part of the process. "You'll have ups and downs," she says. "But if you keep going, you'll find the right fit."
PNC is proud to offer insights, education, and support to female financial decision-makers. Visit pnc.com/women to learn more.