“Women Back to Business”: What to look out for when re‑entering the labor market

Whether two months, two years or two decades – re-entering professional life is a challenge. In an interview, Dr. Patricia Widmer, who heads the “Women Back to Business” program at the University of St.Gallen, explains why such training is needed, how best to approach the return to work, and what can be done during parental leave to make it easier to return to the job market later.

You head the “Women Back to Business” program at the University of St.Gallen – a management training course for women who want to return to working life after a family break or are looking to change positions. Why is this program needed?
There are three reasons: the organizations, the women’s environment, and the women themselves.

First, companies often don’t see the benefits of a female candidate re-entering or transitioning. They focus too much on what is not there (e.g. the gap) and too little on the positive aspects such as the great motivation, the professional and life experience as well as the loyalty of the women, which brings a certain stability to the teams. This is where the WBB program comes in to sensitize the labor market accordingly.

The second point is the private and family environment of many women, which sometimes has great expectations of women regarding their role as mothers and partners. It is often difficult to counteract this. It helps to exchange ideas with other women in a similar situation and to be supported by the group. The WBB program offers such a protected exchange.

The third reason lies with the women themselves. Because they often don’t believe in themselves or don’t know how to position themselves. Through a comprehensive support program, the participants are not only supported in their personal development, but also empowered to take the next professional step.

What obstacles do women in particular face when returning to work, and how do you overcome them?
Often it’s the gap in the curriculum vitae. This is associated with fears or even the perception of no longer being attractive for the labor market. There is a lack of self-confidence and self-esteem. Also, societal expectations of women in Switzerland as well as the school system today are still a major challenge and an obstacle to re-entry. This is accompanied by the small workloads that women seek when re-entering the workforce, which are often not available in companies. It certainly helps to plan the re-entry with a workload of at least 50-60%. In addition, 75% of all jobs are filled through networks. However, a network must first be rebuilt. This is where our program comes in. We have a strong network of companies from a wide range of industries that are aware of the WBB program and regularly hire WBB women.

Is there a “right” time to re-enter the workforce? Or, conversely, is it too late at some point to catch up in your professional life?
There is no right time to re-enter the workforce per se. There are women with short breaks who find it very difficult, and others with very long breaks (more than 10 years) who master the re-entry very quickly. It’s not so much about timing as it is about mindset and attitude. An agile, dynamic as well as open approach helps the whole thing a lot. If you react flexibly to a wide variety of circumstances, you can respond quickly to exciting opportunities and position yourself as an interesting candidate.

What is the best way to plan a re-entry? What should you pay attention to?
One important point is the organization at home. This should be tackled early on and expectations should be discussed. Once questions of childcare and other domestic tasks have been clarified, your head is free to focus on the next step. In addition, the network is extremely important. This includes both the private and the professional network. The exchange with many people helps to plan and concretize the re-entry. In addition, further training can be very supportive. Especially if the focus is not only on professional but also on personal development (as in the WBB program).

What can mothers and fathers who are planning a longer break soon or are still at the beginning of their parental leave do to make it easier for them to return to the job market later?
Stay networked, keep your knowledge up to date, and avoid a gap in your résumé through possible volunteer positions, smaller mandates, or continuing education despite taking time off. Maintain contact with colleagues, for example by meeting regularly for lunch or coffee. Continue the constant exchange on LinkedIn. In addition to traditional continued education, this is also a good platform for keeping up to date with your knowledge. By making new contacts, new ideas and visions emerge, which can also support the re-entry.

The “Women Back to Business” program has now been in existence for over 10 years. What tip or learning would you like to pass on to every future female and male re-entry professional?
Be proud of your story and share it. Authentic storytelling helps a lot with re-entry. Succinctly getting to the heart of the most important elements in an elevator pitch and practicing it over and over again will ensure that the question, “Who are you and what do you do?” will never faze you again.

Dr. Patricia Widmer has been with the University of St.Gallen since 2014, where she established the English-speaking certificate programme «Women Back to Business» (WBB) as well as the «Women’s Leadership Programme» and is now Programme Director for Diversity and Management Programmes. In addition, she teaches, moderates panel discussions, and holds presentations about Diversity & Inclusion and Unconscious Bias. Patricia studied business administration with an emphasis on banking and finance at the University of Zurich and wrote her dissertation about “Gender Disparity at the Top of Companies”.

 

Awina actively supports families in financing daycare places with the help of earmarked loans and thus advocates for a better work-life balance. So that parents can venture back into the workforce at an early stage – or, ideally, keep one foot in the door right from the start.

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