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Opting Back In: After the Choice Comes the Challenge!

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Recent media coverage has stirred up a national conversation regarding women who opted out of the workforce for personal reasons and now want to opt back in. The reason most of these women left was to raise a family and many planned to eventually return to work. While the dialogue back then, about a decade ago, was all about the power of choice, the conversation now is about the challenge these "opted out" women are facing today. Unfortunately, it's not been easy for these bright and competent women to return to the workforce and most have not been able to find positions anywhere close to the ones they left.

A recent study indicated that 89 percent of those who "opted out" said they wanted to resume working but only 73 percent of them succeeded in finding jobs and only 40 percent got full-time work. On average, those returning to work made significantly less than they had been paid before they left and about 25 percent took jobs with lesser management responsibilities and a lower job title than they had in their last position.

What I find interesting about this is that for two decades I've been talking to women about how to move forward in their career and ironically, these women who are opting back into the work force are facing some of the same challenges, such as: Finding opportunities; Getting noticed by the right people; Showing up with the right value-equation; Having an advocate/sponsor; and Negotiating for income equity.

So, whether you are feeling "stuck" in your current career and want to advance or you are trying to resume a career you left several years ago, here's my advice:

Have a plan: Map out a plan that takes into consideration both your personal and professional goals, as well as your dreams and passions. But also be realistic about the demands on your time and your desire for flexibility. Be clear about your commitment to work versus family considerations and be prepared to ask for support to maintain a healthy balance between your career and the rest of your life. Then, plan how you are going to find potential opportunities, decide how much time you are going to devote to this effort each week and put together an action plan for what you are going to do by when. Finally, begin mentioning your interest in potential opportunities and share your goals, aspirations and even your concerns with individuals you trust will be thinking in terms of your best interests. Don't be afraid to initiate these career-focused conversations and never assume that others know what you want or are thinking of doing.

Start some serious networking: Whether or not you are currently working, don't underestimate the value of networking. Having a great network isn't just about knowing many people and having lots of friends. It involves being intentional and identifying people who can support you in accomplishing a specific career goal or help you find a specific work opportunity. And, in some cases, it means being able to contact a person who will then connect you with someone they know who can help you. This calls for getting out of your comfort zone and building relationship with people you might not ordinarily interact with in the normal course of your day. Some people do this by going to networking events and others systematically look at specific groups of individuals to determine who they need to know and why that person might want to have a conversation with them. Pick an approach that works best for you!

Find mentors and a sponsor: Mentors are those individuals who help you learn how to be successful in whatever you are trying to accomplish. They do this by sharing their insights, experiences and relationships with you. You should have lots of these folks in your current network. Sponsors are different than mentors in that they are committed to "going to bat" for you. They are influential and are usually in senior leadership/executive roles. They will advocate for you when you are not in the room and will help to open doors and create pathways for you to either advance in your organization or reenter the workforce in a role that is well suited for you. To engage a sponsor, it's incumbent upon you to ensure there is a high level of trust between the two of you, that they understand your goals, skills, unique differentiators, and that they can speak about you from personal experience.

Ask for what you want and need: This is a common Sticky Floor for a number of women. Whether they underestimate their value, fear rejection, are wary of the support or advice they may receive or just assume people know what they want/need and therefore feel they shouldn't have to ask for it, many women struggle with this particular advice. If you find this hard to do, I suggest that you consider the following: What's the worst thing that can happen? If you know your worth and can articulate your value, if you've done your homework and see all the ramifications and if you are sincere in delivering your request, you'll be fine!

Finally, for those of you who have opted out and think you might want to opt back in some day, don't forget to keep your skills fresh and stay on top of what's happening in your chosen field. There are plenty of free videos out there that are both interesting and informative, books that are on relevant topics and volunteer opportunities that will enable you to tap back into the knowledge, skills and abilities that made you valuable in the workforce before and will again!

Becky's talk at TEDx: It's Not a Glass Ceiling, It's a Sticky Floor

Connect with Becky on LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/rebeccashambaugh