Career breaks stifling women’s confidence at work, study finds

Survey reveals time out also leaves female workers unsure of how to negotiate salary and perpetuates gender pay gap

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Seven in 10 (69 per cent) women have acknowledged that career breaks have made them less confident in their careers and diminished their self-assurance, a study has found.

The poll, conducted by and Research Without Barriers, also revealed that more than two-thirds (67 per cent) of women are afraid to negotiate their pay, which the research identified as “diminished self-assurance” following a professional gap.

The survey of 2,119 UK adults also found the cost of living crisis had led to more than 75 per cent of women looking for jobs with greater salaries, with the majority (83 per cent) of those women admitting they would not apply for a job if the wage was not disclosed in the advert. 

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Katy Neep, gender director at Business in the Community, said women often bore the brunt of any economic downturn. “The current cost of living crisis has come hot on the heels of the pandemic, disproportionately impacting women’s participation in the workplace,” she explained.

Neep added that the “stigma” associated with people taking time off work, whether that is because of caring responsibilities or other reasons, was often cited as a reason that women, in particular, struggle to get back into the workforce.

Liz Sebag‑Montefiore, ​director and co‑founder of 10Eighty, who regularly coaches women on how to negotiate the best salary package, said confidence was a major barrier, highlighting that “when women take maternity leave, a year out of the job market can seem a daunting experience when returning to work”.

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Sebag-Montefiore added that rebuilding confidence was necessary and women often worry about filling skill gaps while experimenting with flexible work schedules. “Women need to be able to understand the salary range upfront to help with the negotiations and what they individually feel is right to be paid,” she said.

The poll also found that the majority of mothers (93 per cent) had taken a career break in the form of maternity leave, adoption leave or looking after children, while seven in 10 (70 per cent) cited being questioned about the reasons behind taking time off work during the interview process.

Anna Whitehouse, founder of the Flex Appeal campaign, said maternity leave should not be considered a career break because the person is still an employee, and should be treated as such from the time they leave until the time they return. “It's the 21st century and yet 54,000 mums are still being kicked out of the workplace every year for simply having kids, and this isn’t good enough,” said Whitehouse.

“We need to hire mums and embrace flexible working to enable everyone to work to their best advantage, and we need to promote part-time passionate workers. Passion and hard work don’t disappear when we have kids, and the perception that it does needs to go.”

The survey found time out of the workplace also caused a knock-on effect when negotiating salary, as more than two-thirds (68 per cent) of mothers cited it had negatively impacted their trust in salary negotiations, and eight in 10 (81 per cent) stated the lack of a salary in a job description discourages them from applying.

The top three factors that women reported as causing their lack of confidence were: interview anxiety (63 per cent), drafting a CV poorly (38 per cent) and not understanding which personal qualities and talents to emphasise to a potential employer (36 per cent).

Danielle Oakley, associate HR director at Peninsula, stressed that abolishing demand for a wage history will offer women far more negotiating power when it comes to remuneration. “Removing negotiating completely, and simply setting a fixed rate of pay for all, can improve transparency, trust and employee satisfaction within organisations,” she added.