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Building a startup and writing a book made me unemployable Anthony Tran

The risk of taking time out of formal employment

I want to talk about something that any woman who has taken leave to have a baby and start a family will attest to- taking time out of formal employment is a risky endeavour.

As a woman well into her 40s who has chosen to remain childless, I have never fully developed my understanding of the impact that taking a career break to raise a family has on women’s careers.

Sure, I have an intellectual recognition of how maternity leave affects women’s careers. I read the research and hear the stories of wage lag and career ladder ceilings that women relay.

I have dealt with women going on maternity leave in my own teams over the years, including the jokes about burning a certain chair when a string of pregnancies would happen in the course of a year. I like to think on the outside I made all the right supportive sounds. I certainly did make sure that those women had the full support on offer from the company as well as from their teammates.

But I have to admit, on the inside I would groan and whine wondering how we were going to deal with the lengthy gap in capacity. I would wonder if those women were really going to come back at all, or if parenthood would prove too much of a draw over the workplace grind, if this was an option for them.

However, I am now learning that it doesn’t matter what the reason for that career break, you are seriously putting yourself at risk of unemployability should you want or need to go back to a steady paycheck arrangement.

Until recently when I applied for a job after a four year break to build a startup and write a book, I absolutely did not have a full appreciation for the risk women take when they take time out from the workplace.

I know, I can hear all of you who have been through this challenge already groaning and hair-pulling at my ignorance. And too right, too.

This is what happened to me:

I wanted to do a very interesting 3-month project that was on offer with a respected national governmental organisation. The kicker was they would only bring someone on to do it as a fully bona fide employee. So no consultant day rate or contract work arrangement was allowed.

I left my last government job and a 20-year career four years ago. In that time, among other things, I have built a startup and written a book. I have not had a line manager. This company’s HR department cannot understand why I can’t provide line manager references from this time period. No other type of references will satisfy them.

I even said to them, “how do you accommodate women who are coming back into the workforce after taking time off to raise a family, then?” I didn’t get a response.

I have been a mentor for and advocate of women excelling in their careers, striving for more responsibility, leadership positions, and being fairly compensated. But I hadn’t, until now, felt like I needed to add to that advocacy for recognition of all the types of accomplishments women achieve that don’t involve paychecks and line managers.

I actually said to my new would-be boss and to the HR officer “I started a company and wrote a book, what more do you want?” while thinking of all the women who could be saying, about any extended “absences” from the workplace:

I birthed and raised two kids until they were ready for pre-school, what more do you want?

I battled a life-threatening disease and won, what more do you want?

I planned the logistics of around the globe travel, learned about different cultures through immersion, and came back in one piece, what more do you want?

I started a charity and helped hundreds of homeless people, what more do you want?

I lived and worked in a refugee camp where I taught people to read, what more do you want?

What more do you want?

I want hiring managers and HR officers processing paperwork to recognise that there is more to professional development than coming into an office every day and working to a line manager or team leader.

I want personal development such as raising a family, volunteering, writing a book, starting a company, caring for a sick loved one or yourself, to be recognised for creating resilient, resourceful, disciplined, well-rounded people who can cope with almost anything and have enormous value to bring to a “job”.

I want people to use their minds and their discernment when learning about others’ experiences to determine their suitability or capability for being a valuable contributor to any team or organisation.

I want people to stop going through processes with their noses down, following a trough where “computer says no” or an anomaly in what is expected means “no”.

I want to know if a man with a break in employment who had also started a business and written a book (or raised a family, or volunteered abroad…) would have had the same sceptical reaction about what on earth they had done with their time the past four years.

I’m sure I will never know. But I have had the scales removed from my eyes and hope I have learned my own valuable lesson about determining people’s potential for contributions based on a range of typical and not so typical experiences.

When I finish this piece of work and return full-time to my startup, I will have a whole new approach to seeking talent. I will have learned to value a person’s experiences for the skills they develop in them, and to look beyond formal or “easily recognisable” tick-box career paths. We must understand the value of non-traditional work, and even non-work experiences, or risk missing out on some of the most innovative and resourceful employees.

Because I know that what I have achieved over the past four years, and the things I have learned in doing them, beats anything I have ever done before.

My first book, Becoming a Fearless Leader: A simple guide to taking control and building happy, productive, highly-performing teams is out now. You can find access to a free pdf workbook that accompanies it on my website. If you do read my book, I would love to hear your comments.

I write about how I became the founder of a tech startup as a non-techie, over-40 female with no entrepreneurial experience, and all I am learning along the way. You can see more here. If you think this might be helpful for others on their entrepreneurial journey, please recommend and share.