This post was published by The Washington Post on March 19, 2015.
Once upon a time, I was a fan of job interviews. That all changed after I’d switched careers, had a baby and decided to spend the first year at home with her.
I anticipated that my qualifications, with the added bonus of a baby who talks in Russian gibberish, would land me in the “yes” pile. In every cover letter and at every interview, I brought up my work as a stay-at-home-mom as a sign of commitment – prepared to whip out her picture and my color-coded Excel spreadsheet of organic purees.
In a Cornell University study, participants were asked to review application materials of identical candidates, the only difference being one was a parent, and the other wasn’t.
Mothers received half as many callbacks and a 7 percent lower recommended salary than equally qualified non-mothers. Mothers were also expected to score higher on an exam in order to be considered.
In a New York Times feature, Judith Warner explored the struggles of women reentering the workforce. Fewer than half of surveyed mothers found full-time employment, earning, on average, 16 percent less than when they had left. Many settled for fewer management responsibilities or a lower title.
After reaching out to career experts and other mothers, I devised several strategies for interviewing after baby
1. Communicate nonverbally
Nonverbal cues make a stronger first impression than qualifications. For some of us, our wardrobes haven’t caught up with our new figures. Even if you are on a budget, invest in quality interview clothes if the old ones don’t fit. The worst it can do is boost your self-esteem. Leaving the engagement ring at home and only keeping the band might call less attention to family status.
If you have two left feet and a tendency to over-caffeinate, like I do, make an effort to move more slowly.
At a recent job interview, while getting up to greet the two directors who had walked into the conference room, I tipped my water glass over. Shards of broken glass and ice ruptured across the table, carpet and the directors’ feet dramatically and slowly, like something out of The Matrix. I helped clean in as dignified a manner as possible in a skirt suit, and chalked up the enthusiasm to my excitement over our meeting. The rest of the interview was fabulous, I thought – with on-point, thoughtful questions and answers, even some chuckles.
Whether because I’m a klutz, a parent, or something else, I didn’t get the job. But if one is expected to outperform in every way, maybe skip the outperforming when defacing private property.
2. Practice the art of conversation
Outside of moms’ activities, stay-at-home parents typically talk to two adults during the day: the mailman and the cashier at Target. The isolation makes it easy to spout off to anyone willing to listen. Go to as many interviews as possible to recalibrate your social skills and to avoid verbal breakthroughs at the wrong time.
Pause after the interviewer has finished speaking; don’t respond immediately. Don’t go over 30 seconds when summarizing your accomplishments.
Case in point:
Interviewer: Tell me about your previous job.
Candidate: Great question! I worked with these ships – you know, big Navy ships. We called them floating gas stations because they can get suuuuper close to an aircraft carrier and throw this line over and refuel the carrier while both ships are at sea – underway replenishment we call that, but these ships also deliver guns and groceries and mail to our sailors aaaall over the world and participate in humanitarian activities – oh, and bring food to scientists. In Antarctica. On the South Pole. Or is it North? So anyway, what can I tell you about that job?
Interviewer: [Stares blankly]
3. Don’t be an apologist for taking care of your child
The prospective employer might not know that childcare is a 24/7 job, with a temperamental boss and no vacation; that the position you are interviewing for is likely less challenging than the one at home. Or even if the employer knows what it’s like, you might still be viewed as uncommitted or rusty as an old barn gate.
However, just because you haven’t attended daily meetings with your hair done in a while, that doesn’t mean you watched cartoons in pajamas all day. Never qualify your time at home as “I wasn’t working” or “I just took care of my baby.”
You were working.
People differ in opinion on whether to bring up kids at all. If you feel it’s important to establish transparency with a potential boss at the outset, remind the interviewer that you’ve become a multitasking pro, flexible, skilled at management and attuned to the needs of others (perhaps more so than someone chugging happy-hour margaritas). Emphasize your stellar qualifications. That you have a solid daycare lined up. And stop.
Asking about “work-life balance” is not recommended off the bat, as it signals a lack of commitment. But look for signs. Do other parents work here? (Drawings, baby photos, references to parents)? Good. Or does everyone appear young, pursuing a childless lifestyle or run around with Nerf guns? Not good.
There isn’t much you can do if the employer chooses to perpetuate institutionalized discrimination. Or if she fears pediatric appointments and piano recitals and the fact that, God forbid, you might occasionally need to work remotely or clock in — and out — later once in a while (because clearly Tinder on company time is less of a liability). Make a compelling, dignified case and leave it there. If you perceive disparagement, then the place isn’t for you anyway.
4. Recognize ageism for what it is
Taking time off work means your peers will have advanced, yet you will be where you had left off, with a younger set of colleagues. Sadly, unless you are in your early to mid-20s, you may be considered old, at least in Silicon Valley. “Young people are just smarter,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at a Stanford event in 2007.
Melanie Curtin, a former Uber employee, describes her 80-100 hour weeks as great “for someone single…. However, if you’re already somewhat established in your life (mid- to late 20s, early 30s, or in a relationship), it’s going to be hard,” she advises applicants interested in this coveted startup.
A recent college grad might ask you things like “How do you feel being managed by a younger boss?” “Are you sure you are interested in this role? It’s pretty junior.”
No need to explain your age or your approach to life. Reiterate that doing a good job and getting along with the team matters to you more than age.
At a recent Georgetown Alumni Career Services webinar hosted bycareer coach Anna Graham Hunter, a woman in her 30s asked how to break into a company that only hires young people. Hunter’s advice? Stop trying to break in. Find a company that does hire people in their 30s.
5. Close the employment history gap
After being out of work for more than six months, it’s considerably harder to get hired. So fill in that gap on your resume. Add something relevant and truthful, in a freelance or consultant capacity, spanning through the present.
If you volunteered for a parent organization, say so, using descriptors that would apply to the job. If you dispensed professional advice or took on projects, don’t sell yourself short (“Oh, that? That was just a little side project.” “Oh, that? That was just for a friend.”). Flaunt your accomplishments. But if you didn’t freelance, absolutely begin to do so.
If you volunteered for a parent organization, say so, using descriptors that would apply to the job. Don’t sell yourself short, even if your projects were for a friend or family member. Flaunt your accomplishments. If you didn’t freelance, absolutely begin to do so.
Networking is key for word-of-mouth client referrals. Graham Hunter gives excellent networking advice.
Finding appropriate clients takes time. For my first volunteering gig, for instance, the client waited until week two to tell me that “helping the underprivileged and bringing people of all walks of life together” meant adult entertainment. I dropped him and got smarter about my research.
Motherhood: Is it an issue?
When my baby was a newborn, a friend stopped by. We’d always had a cordial acquaintanceship – attended parties and happy hours together and exchanged dating advice.
Now, she came to meet the mini me. “I don’t understand why people have kids,” she said, staring at the baby, who’d just kicked off her second sock and was wailing again. “I heard about this woman at Facebook who just got back from maternity leave and quit three weeks later! That’s why I would never hire a pregnant woman. I mean, can you believe it?”
I can believe it, yes. Because this dialogue about women having it all is about having the ability to succeed in our choices, the underlying objective of feminism. But it would help if our own society stopped stalling us and viewed motherhood as not just a mother’s issue.
In the meantime, here’s an uplifting video – and kudos for being or supporting fellow moms.