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Opinion and Insight
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Advocating for My Son and for Me, 2 months, 2 weeks ago

Ellen Kalis, Public Relations Lead, Canada and the Midwest at SapientNitro, on the importance of initiatives that aid parents’ paths back into their careers

Advocating for My Son and for Me

Four years ago I made the choice to leave my job as a public relations professional to be an advocate for my son who has Cerebral Palsy. When I left I was a confident, driven and successful career woman, so I was surprised when I made the decision to return to work that I felt nervous and was second-guessing my abilities. Those feelings were almost enough for me to give up the idea of going back to my career completely. I wondered how my résumé would even get into HR’s hands and assumed it would be tossed to the side as soon as they saw the gap in my career. 

These feelings were not unfounded. The Center for Work-Life Policy estimates that 43 per cent of highly qualified working mothers leave the workforce at some point in their career and stay out an average of two years. And these women pay a big career penalty. The Center for Work-Life policy pegs the wage dip at 18 per cent across a range of professional occupations. 

After reading this, I began to feel nervous – and then resentful. Why should I have to devalue my skills and myself because I made the choice to take on one of the hardest jobs of my life, lobbying for my son who has special needs? The difficult conversations, negotiating, strategic planning, project and time-management skills and creativity required to ensure my son was getting everything he needed and deserved to succeed was just as challenging as any job I had in the past. And I was sure other women, and men, were in similar situations and were being passed-up for jobs, or taking big steps back in their careers to get their foot in the door again. It’s like we’d fallen into the parent trap.

The parent trap remains very real in many companies. But there are organisations who are leading change in this area. Career return programs, paid internships for talented professionals looking to refresh their careers and re-enter the workforce, are slowly popping up in companies in various industries. 

I was lucky enough to find a career return opportunity through a family member who worked for SapientNitro – a marketing agency who recently launched their program. As I went through the interview process it was so refreshing to know that they were excited to hear about my experience outside of work. They were looking for people with diverse skills acquired in many contexts, not simply in traditional jobs.

Being part of the stay-at-home mom circle for so many years, I saw a lot of friends take on jobs that were far below their skill and pay scale. They just wanted something that brought in some money without bringing the stress and hours of their previous careers. Other moms went the mompreneur route because they felt that was the only way to stay in control of their time and life. 

In Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean in, she writes that “74 per cent of professional women will rejoin the workforce in any capacity, and 40 per cent will return to full time jobs." That’s a staggeringly high group of smart, qualified and capable people that companies are missing out on if they continue to see stepping away from the workforce as a detriment rather than an opportunity for diverse perspectives. 

A career return program is a huge step in the right direction, but it can only be successful if a company allows for some flexibility. In many cases, the reason people left in the first place did not suddenly go away. I still had a son with special needs. Working late every night and putting in a 60+-hour work week was not an option. 

This is a big worry for many people returning to the work force after an extended leave, especially when joining a fast-paced industry like marketing, as I did. From my experience, anyone who is given the flexibility and autonomy to work their job around their life – rather than have to work their life around their job – is going to give you 100 per cent more effort. 

Going back to work does not come without challenges, but my perspective has changed. Before having my son, not knowing an answer or outcome would cause huge frustration and stress. But now I know what it’s like to live with uncertainty, change and hope. When doctors tell you only time will tell about your son’s abilities and future – will he talk? Will he integrate with his peers? Will he be able to live independently as an adult? Will he be happy or will his challenges eventually wear his spirit down? – you learn to really be in the moment and focus on solutions and what you can control at that time. Bringing this perspective to a job really helps you get to the matter of things and see through the clutter. 

Call it a fresh perspective, or just the perspective of a mom who has been through a lot, the fact that it is valued and welcomed at SapientNitro gives me hope as well. Hope that other people have the chance to return to the workforce and contribute all the life experience they gained when they hit pause on their careers. 

Ellen Kalis is Public Relations Lead, Canada and the Midwest at SapientNitro

Comparable to an internship, SapientNitro’s Career Returns Program is a 10-week, paid program for talented creative, technology and advertising industry professionals looking to refresh their careers and re-enter the workforce. SapientNitro aims to support these seasoned candidates on their path back to making an impact at work, whether that be full or part-time.

People take breaks from the workforce for a variety of reasons, whether it’s to start a family, care for a sick or elderly family member, travel, or sometimes, tackle an illness of their own. Sometimes these absences are brief, but often they can be extended, and when they are, re-entering the workforce can be a challenge. Hiring managers may see time away as an indication that someone is stale or that they may not have an up-to-date or relevant skillset.

Because we value diversity, we are asking ourselves to intentionally value the diverse skills acquired in many contexts, not simply office ones, when it comes time to making hiring decisions, promotion choices and retention efforts. We aspire to be a place that enables human potential, and we are holding ourselves accountable to see the whole person.