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life at work

Rindy Bradshaw transitioned to a new field of work after staying home to care for her children.Brett Gundlock/The Globe and Mail

It's a given that any woman having children will take some time off work to raise them. Some women jump back to their jobs right away, while others take an extended leave in order to spend several years with their children before returning to work. Those who leave work for a lengthier time, though, have found bigger challenges getting back into the work force.

At one end of the spectrum, Toronto mom Rindy Bradshaw built a career as an advertising account executive with the firm Ogilvy & Mather in London, took a dozen years off to be with her children and transitioned back to work as a program director for a Toronto-based non-profit. that uses puppets to teach kids about acceptance of differences and disabilities. At the other end, lawyer Carrie Mandel took just 12 weeks' maternity leave with each of her two daughters and is now a partner with executive recruitment firm Odgers Berndtson, based in Toronto and New York.

Just how women re-enter the work force after a long leave became a hot topic this summer when writer Judith Warner wrote a piece in New York Times Magazine: "The Opt-out Generation Wants Back In." In it, Ms. Warner interviewed women who had given up promising careers to stay at home and raise their children. She found that many women had difficulty re-entering the labour force, particularly those who did not have the highest education levels or highly connected social networks, or those who had divorced. Her article was a follow-up to a controversial 2003 article in the magazine by Lisa Belkin called "The Opt-out Revolution," in which Ms. Belkin said women were voluntarily choosing to give up their careers in favour of family.

Since then, the workplace has changed. While the stigma around women earning more than their partners has eased, and some employers are more flexible, jobs are less secure. The challenge of negotiating a return from leave, however, remains a constant.

"Women [who return to work after a leave] tend to get marginalized or sidelined, and a lot of this is an implicit or benevolent form of bias where people are trying to be nice by not giving women more challenging assignments or passing them over for promotion because they don't want to stress them out," says Jennifer Berdahl, a professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management.

For women looking to avoid the sidelines upon their return to work – and workplaces interested in capitalizing on their talents – communication are key factors.

"Workplaces shouldn't assume that all mothers are the same," Ms. Berdahl says. "Some want to hit the ground and run, others might want to scale back. [Managers should] work actively with women instead of assuming what they want." She adds that women should also initiate these discussions.

Ms. Mandel, who has also written a book called Breaking Through: Tales from the Top Canadian Women General Counsel, says she interviewed women who successfully negotiated getting off the law partner track – and back on.

"The more you can do to stay connected, the easier it will be when you come back," says Ms. Mandel. "Hopefully you're working for a firm where people on the inside get that, and help you stay connected in ways that are not intrusive on your maternity leave time, [including] you on e-mails to keep you in the loop, flagging [developments] you might have missed."

In-person connections are also be important, says Donna Spencer, a former sales manager who took five years off to raise her children and retrained as a consultant for Investors Group Financial Services. "When you have time off, you want to be always investing in yourself, networking and connecting," she says.

For some women, particularly those on a longer-term leave, contemplating a return to the work force prompts self-reflection. Sue Austin is a coach with At the Junction Consulting, a Toronto-based organization that runs a seven-week workshop called "Your next chapter" to help women plan their return to work. She asks clients to think about the big picture. "What are the factors that are driving you to get back into work force and how do you define balance?" she asks.

She also encourages women to identify skills they developed while away from their jobs, such as those developed volunteering. "These women have managed budgets, looked after multiple stakeholders, worked with volunteers in collaborative ways," she says.

Ms. Austin's client, Ms. Bradshaw, for instance, volunteered with her children's school and her church, community involvement that influenced her transition from advertising to non-profit work. "It was a rich time because I was with my kids but I really felt I was also making a big contribution, and learning a lot," says Ms. Bradshaw.

While those who take longer leaves risk their skills and contacts becoming stale, employers also risk losing talented and experienced employees. This is particularly prevalent in professions with billable hours. "After having kids, people are starting to leave those jobs. They are just so hostile to family life," Ms. Berdahl says.

Those who have successfully waded back into the working world say planning ahead is key. "Have a goal in mind and a plan," Ms. Spencer says. "Think about what you have, what are the benefits of leaving, what is your goal down the road, and what is your plan to get back in."

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