Back in Business: A Guide for Women Re-Entering the Workforce

By Jill Purdy, Field Talent Lead

On almost a weekly basis, I find myself on a call or responding to an email from a woman asking me: “How did you do it?”

“How did you get your career back after being out of it for so long?”

These women are not alone. Millions of us leave the workforce every single year, a trend which was intensified during the pandemic when 54 million women around the world left the workforce in the first year of the COVID-19 outbreak.

For many – like myself – the reason for stepping away is to stay home with our children. Even without the shelter-in-place effect of the pandemic, the pressure of building two careers while raising children can be too much to manage or simply too economically impractical for many families (have you seen the cost of childcare these days?).

But then, when the kids are more independent or a significant life change occurs, many women find themselves at a loss. They feel rudderless. They want their careers back.

The good news is that things have changed dramatically since many women put their careers on hold. With the rapid acceleration of remote and flexible work options, opportunities for women looking to reenter the workforce are greater than ever before.

But that’s not to say it’s easy. You need a strategy if you’re going to make it happen, and chances are you’ll need some patience. My goal is to help you figure it out.

My story: Sales rep to mother to recruiter

First, I want to quickly tell you my story.

In the 90s, I had a great job as a sales rep at a large pharmaceutical company. I loved my work and I was beginning to build a great career. But my husband was also moving up the corporate ladder, requiring 9 moves in 12 years.

Although my company was good to me, moving me twice with my husband and offering to move me a third time, I decided it would be best to take some time away and stay home with the kids. This was a tremendous blessing and I feel very fortunate that we were in a position to make that decision.

But by the time the kids were in grade school, I started to wonder about getting back to work. I tried reentering the workforce then, but no one was interested in me because of the giant gap in my resume. I also had no idea how to market myself.

Eventually, after nearly two decades of being out of the workforce, I was given a chance. I knew the President and HR Director at a pharma company who was looking to hire a group of 1099 employees to recruit pharma sales reps for an expansion. They offered me the position and I was able to bring in four other women who had been reps or managers at large pharmaceutical companies – all four of whom, like me, had previously attempted to reenter the workforce without success.

This opportunity re-launched all of our careers. Since this experience, two of the women have opened up their own recruiting firm, one is a multiple President’s Club Account Executive with a pharmaceutical company, and another is working for a pharma company in their TA department.

It wasn’t easy for any of us, but when it finally happened it was all well worth it. That said, there are some things I learned along the way that I wish I had known at the beginning of my journey, which leads me to…

Tips for writing your story

Every woman’s story is different. How long it takes to get back into your career and what that looks like may be entirely different from how it happened for me or someone else. That said, there are some universal things that every woman who is serious about getting her career back should do. And that starts with taking a good, long look at yourself.

1) Take a look at the woman in the mirror

Before you start applying for jobs, calling up old colleagues, or updating your resume, you should begin by thinking hard about what you want to do. You don’t need to have all of the answers right away – you certainly won’t – but writing down some good guesses while thinking through a few key questions will help you get started in the right direction.

The reason this is so important is that being intentional at this stage will give you the focus you need to be strategic and persistent throughout your journey.

Some questions to get you started:

  • What was your previous career? What skill sets do you have? Think about your previous jobs not only in terms of titles and roles but in terms of skills, including soft skills, that would make you a valuable addition to a team.
  • What did you enjoy most about your previous job(s)? What’s your passion? Was it the opportunity to help others? To make a meaningful contribution to your industry? To be creative? Understanding this will help you dial in on roles that truly appeal to you.
  • What have you been doing since stepping away from your career? Did you volunteer, work part-time, etc.? These activities may not technically be considered career achievements, but they are things that employers may look at as indicators of an active and engaged mindset. You may also have picked up some new skills along the way that are worth highlighting.

Write your answers to these questions down and continue to reference and refine them through this process.

2) Get up to speed with the industry (and modern workflows)

Since you have been away from your career, it will come as no surprise that some things have changed. In the life sciences, for example, there are so many fascinating trends and shifts that are important to be aware of if you want to actively participate in the space.

You don’t need to be able to write a book about these topics, but understanding the basics of some things could prove useful. In the life sciences, this could include things like:

  • Emerging therapies, including cell & gene and healthtech
  • Functional shifts, such as the growing significance of medical affairs
  • Technological innovation, including the integration of AI into clinical development

Depending on the type of role you’re looking for, I would also recommend looking into role- or function-specific shifts that have occurred in the time you’ve been away. If you can speak on these topics when interviewing, it will show that you are “in the know,” committed to keeping up with the state of your industry.

It’s also important to understand that how work happens has changed. When I first got back to work, I was completely overwhelmed by all of the notifications that were constantly jockeying for my attention on a minute-by-minute basis. Slack alerts, email notifications, calendar reminders – the pings, buzzes, and dings made my head spin. I couldn’t believe how different it was from what work was like 17 years prior.

Do yourself a favor and prepare for this. Get some help from someone who is actively using modern workflows and ask them how they manage it. YouTube can also be a great resource for learning how to navigate these applications. Your sanity will thank you.

3) Network, network, network

Some things have changed a lot since you worked, but some things stay the same: it’s still about who you know!

Think about who you could reconnect with from your past work life and reach out to them. Find online groups that help women network and share opportunities. Also, get involved at a local level. I did this with my Chamber of Commerce, which was extremely helpful.

Even if a new opportunity doesn’t immediately emerge, telling your story and getting feedback from others will empower you to keep going. These will also be great opportunities to learn about how the industry has changed so you can be better prepared when the right moment does arrive.

4) Practice your “why”

There’s just one thing left to do: to be able to quickly and convincingly answer the question “Why you?”

Why, after your time away, are you now reentering the workforce? Why should an organization take a gamble on you? What skills and abilities do you possess – and which ones have you gained since being away – that would make you a valuable asset?

These are the questions that hiring managers will be asking themselves when they see your resume come across their desk, and you need to be prepared with a convincing pitch that gives them thought-out answers to each of them.

Don’t assume this will come to you in the moment. You need to practice your pitch, fine-tuning your “why me” until it becomes a mantra. Recruit some friends and family members to practice, and consider running it by some of the individuals you have the opportunity to network with. If it’s authentic, passionate, and convincing, it will make all the difference when the right opportunity arrives.

5) Manage your expectations

This can be one of the hardest parts. Once you decide to start working again, you’re ready to get started. But it can take some time to happen.

You probably don’t want to hear this, but you may need to take a step back to get a chance. You may have managed a team and overseen large projects before, but that might not be a realistic goal for your first job back in action.

It might not seem fair, but if you’re prepared to prove yourself again, you will have every opportunity to get back – and even surpass – where you were before. Don’t let a few no’s discourage you along the way. If you keep at it, the yes will come.

It may also take some time to decide on the right path. At one point, I had three 1099 jobs. I was working in sales, business development, and recruiting. But through it, I realized I wanted to focus on recruiting alone – which is when I was fortunate enough to find Mix.

So keep an open mind. Your journey will surely take twists and turns you didn’t expect – which, while at times unnerving, can ultimately make it more exciting and worthwhile than you ever expected.

Ready to get started?

Just like beginning a career, getting your career back can be hard work – but, in my experience, it is completely worth it.

I firmly believe that you – and the millions of other women like you – represent a tremendous opportunity for organizations, one that an author for Harvard Business Review said might in fact be “corporate America’s greatest untapped resource.”

If we can do a better job of marketing ourselves and helping each other, we can make a significant impact not only on good organizations but on entire industries.

As a recruiter, I’m working hard every day to do my part: advising women about how to get back to work while also advising Mix’s clients on how to think outside the box when looking for best-fit talent. Now, I encourage you to buckle down and get started – I promise, if you do, you will accomplish your goals.

And if you would like to talk one-on-one about your situation, feel free to reach out to me at jill.purdy@mix-talent.com. I would be more than happy to offer my perspective and advice.

About the author

Jill Purdy

Field Talent Lead

Jill’s experience spans various facets of the pharmaceutical industry which began with her time as a pharmaceutical sales representative. In her 9 years of experience as a recruiter, Jill has become a trusted partner for both clients and candidates. Her deep understanding of the biotech sector allows her to match top talent with clients’ specific needs. Her experience in dealing with c-suite, marketing, and business development, gives her a unique perspective on the industry that results in successful placements and long-lasting relationships.

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