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Can Stay-at-Home Moms Ever Get Back on the Career Track?

Vivia Chen

April 16, 2018

Retro-1291738_960_720If you're thinking of dropping out of your fancy law job to stay home with the kiddies, I have one word of advice for you: Don't. Unless you are absolutely certain that you never want a future in Big Law or some other similarly competitive position again, don't even think about it. 

That's essentially the finding of a new study by Kate Weisshaar, an assistant professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In a recent post in the Harvard Business Review blog, Weisshaar writes that employers look askance at stay-at-home moms and dads who try to re-enter the workforce: "Put simply, stay-at-home parents were about half as likely to get a callback as unemployed parents and only one-third as likely as employed parents." 

Let's be blunt: You are better off getting axed from your job than leaving it by choice—if that choice was quitting for the sake of the children. 

In her research, Weisshaar sent out 3,374 resumes for an assortment of high skill jobs: accountant, finance analyst, software engineer, HR manager and marketing director. Though the fictitious applicants all had the same level of experiences and skills, there were sharp difference in the callback rates. Reports HBR:

The results show just how heavily parents reentering the workforce are penalized for their career gap: 15.3% of the employed mothers, 9.7% of the unemployed mothers, and 4.9% of the stay-at-home mothers received a callback.

The results were similar for fathers. While 14.6% of the employed fathers and 8.8% of unemployed fathers received a callback, only 5.4% of stay-at-home fathers did.

So how does this study affect lawyers? "I would guess the penalties would be similar or even larger in law because it's so competitive to get into these big firms in the first place," says Weisshaar. "Opting out is seen as signaling that you're less committed to the job."  What's more, she says, that perception is likely magnified in a high-pressured profession like law: "These jobs have expectations of long hours and total dedication, so employers get concerned if someone is showing signs of being less committed."

Those types of stigmas and prejudices "ring true," says Caren Ulrich Stacy, the CEO of Diversity Lab, which promotes women and diversity in the law: "In nearly 20 years as the head of talent for large law firms, I was never able to get a women lawyer with a significant gap in her resume an interview."

But Stacy says her organization's on-ramp fellowship program, which helps women who've been out of the workforce get back to Big Law, is gaining traction. Stacy says that 35 firms and in-house departments have hired 65 women returning to the profession through the on-ramp program. That said, the competition is stiff. "In 4 years, we’ve received more than 400 applications," says Stacy.

Weisshaar isn't convinced that these programs aimed at helping women get back into the game is making much of a dent. "I do think they are more of a Band-Aid than a solution." 

Her advice is not to drop out completely. "I like the idea of ramping up or down, but not off," she says. "If possible, work part-time or flex-time so that you can keep the connection." She adds that it's incumbent on the workplace to make those options viable. "People don't go into a job thinking that they'll be a stay-at-home mom in five years," she explains. "The key is to allow more flexibility and now stigmatize part-time jobs."

But what if you've already quit your job and spent the last eight years chasing after the kids? Are you forever cast as Suzy Homemaker? 

Weisshaar suggests fudging the truth a bit. "Don't say explicitly what's been happening in your life on your resume," she advices. "Just say I've been out of the labor force and now want to return."


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I have quite a few friends who left BIGLAW to raise their kids because they couldn't figure out how to make it work. The message here is BIGLAW will chew you up and spit you out and then judge you for not being a good sport about it and sticking it out! It'd be nice if they actually seriously worked on making the environment more conducive for parents. I won't hold my breath though!

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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