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Career: Avoiding the mummy track

News

Cite as: December 2015 89 (12) LIJ, p.24

Career consultant Norah Breekveldt's new book explores how women can get back on the career path after an enforced break. By Karin Derkley

After lawyer Lisa Croxford returned from a stint overseas with a baby in tow, she managed to negotiate a role as a fee-earning part-timer at Freehills. While she appreciated the unconventional offer, she remembers it as a tough time in her life. Her mother had recently died, she was conflicted between the pull of mothering and the demands of her job and, as she recalls, “They really didn’t know what to do with me. . . I had some days where I was walking to work asking myself, ‘seriously what am I coming in here for?’”

Returning to the firm after parental leave for her second child, Ms Croxford was determined not be put on an impossible “mummy track” this time and to make the part-time option work. With the encouragement of a supportive partner in the firm, she and another senior associate who was returning from parental leave at the same time trialled a job share arrangement.

It was the mid-2000s and there were still plenty of naysayers who insisted job sharing wouldn’t work, that it would inconvenience clients and partners and result in lower quality work. Ms Croxford and her job-share partner proved them wrong, with client feedback showing it was a resounding success. Today she is a capability development manager with Herbert Smith Freehills, and the firm itself has become a model of inclusion and a flexible workplace, with 22 per cent of its partners in Australia women – and four women who are working part-time among the most recently promoted partners.

The kind of career interruption experienced by Ms Croxford is common in the working lives of most women, whether as a result of having children, travelling, illness or exploring other career options, according to Norah Breekveldt, author of the book Career Interrupted, which tells Ms Croxford’s story. It is all too often a damaging one.

“When you look at the statistics, having a career break results in at least a 5 per cent wage penalty,” she said. It also explains why there are still so few women at the top of their profession, she added. Many women find themselves puddling indefinitely in the lower reaches of their profession if they dare take a step off the fast track escalator.

A career consultant, Ms Breekveldt had looked at the experience of women who took unorthodox paths to the top of their careers in a previous book Sideways to the Top. Career breaks and their consequences was a common theme in that book that the author wanted to explore more closely. “But I didn’t want to just focus on what went wrong – I wanted to look at women who had worked their way through those obstacles and come out the other end.”

Each of the 14 women featured in Career Interrupted, including Moira Rayner, federal MPs Anna Burke and Kelly O’Dwyer, and Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Lucinda Nolan, negotiated the various interruptions to their career in their own way. “We wanted to show in this book that there is no one answer, everyone has different values and different experiences, and the art is to work out what works for you,” Ms Breekveldt said.

But there are some common qualities that emboldened these women to press through the uncertain times in their lives, even while others were convinced their career paths had hit a road block.

“They all learned to stand up for themselves and to take charge of their careers, they sought help, they worked out what was important to them, and they ruthlessly prioritised what was required,” Ms Breekveldt said.

The support of others, particularly in the workplace, is absolutely essential for making a rewarding return to the workforce, she said. “The women who really succeeded were those who worked for managers who supported them. If you don’t have a supportive manager, find one – even if it means moving to a different firm.”

Ms Breekveldt emphasised that career breaks should not be seen as a black mark that has to be somehow smoothed over, but a positive that often makes an employee a more rounded person. “A broader life experience can give you a greater understanding of clients who come from different backgrounds. It gives you a wider perspective in decision-making. And those who come back after a break, especially parents, are often more productive. They are clear-eyed and determined to get things done efficiently.”

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