Does marketing have a career gap bias?

Rather than hiding their career breaks or “levelling down” their expectations, female marketers returning to the workplace are finding renewed confidence and the ability to thrive.

Career gap bias
Source: Shutterstock

February marked a month where career breaks shot up the news agenda.

Chief executive of Co-op food Jo Whitfield announced she was taking four months of unpaid leave from May to help her sons study for their GCSEs and A-Levels. Whitfield spoke of her desire to “ease the challenge” during the emotional turmoil of exam season.

In the same month, fintech Monzo said it would offer staff with four years tenure or more the chance to take three months paid leave. The leave can be taken in one block or a month at a time, enhancing the bank’s current policy offering all staff one-month unpaid sabbatical.

With brands and business leaders prioritising career breaks the issue may be becoming mainstream, but that doesn’t mean taking time out is an easy choice.

Charlene Charity, who is now head of strategy at Digitas, had spent eight years at BT and four years at Amazon, serving as head of live sports marketing at Amazon Prime. Between raising two children, helping her mother move to Johannesburg and supporting her brother who suffers with mental health problems, Charity was spinning a lot of plates.

“Amazon is a very tough place to work. I absolutely loved the work I did, but the whole philosophy is around it being day one. The analogy we often used at Amazon was it’s like drinking from a firehose. There’s lots of it and it’s very rewarding, but there’s a lot of work that needs to be done,” she explains.

“I’d been really lucky to work on some of the biggest launches Prime Video had ever done, but personally I was exhausted.”

It’s hard because you need to have a lot of uncomfortable conversations and there will always be people who say no.

Charlene Charity

Keen to spend more time with her children, explore her passion for diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) and set up a perimenopause community, Charity remembers telling her boss she was taking a career break.

“She was like ‘You’re at the top of your game here’ and I was like ‘I know, but it’s just time to go’. I also remember speaking to a male ex-colleague who was like ‘Oh my goodness, you’ve quit Amazon’,” she recalls. “Those words just rang in my ears and the word quitting felt like it wasn’t the right language to use, it wasn’t empowering.”

She formulated a plan to help her mum relocate in Johannesburg and take the kids travelling for a few months. Then Covid ground the world to a halt. Balancing home-schooling and her brother’s worsening mental health, while attempting to repatriate her mum from South Africa, Charity’s plans shifted.

She ramped up her mentoring and co-founded a DE&I consultancy, while also creating perimenopause wellness business Suvi Labs. Yet, Charity felt she could make a bigger difference in driving diversity from within an organisation. A return to full-time work meant finding the right fit.

Ending the stigma of taking a career break

“I thought I could probably get a more junior role and ask to do it over four days and one day a week drop the kids off and run Suvi Labs. But I didn’t want to sell myself short. I do feel like I have a duty to be a bit of a role model to show other women you can do it,” she explains.

“It’s hard because you need to have a lot of uncomfortable conversations and there will always be people who say no. That’s totally fair enough, because if they’re telling you they can’t support you on your journey then that’s really not the organisation for you.”

The role she accepted was head of strategy at Digitas, combining the flexibility she needed with her passion for DE&I. Charity actively encourages flexibility within her team, at least four of whom have flexible arrangements. She has also hired two pregnant women and is excited about the prospect of offering job shares.

How marketers are pushing for workplace flexibility

Baby steps

Aside from the focus Covid has put on flexibility, Charity believes the taboo around returning to the workplace is lessening due to furlough and widespread restructures. She urges returners to decide what they need from a role and not sell their talent short.

“It’s always nice to feel wanted in those interviews and you can end up being super grateful to be there having the conversations. Particularly as women we do that a lot,” Charity points out.

Rather than hiding their career break, she encourages marketers to craft a 10-second career story, a tactic which enhanced her confidence. A member of the Mums in Marketing (MiMs) group on LinkedIn and Facebook, Charity advises returners to talk to their community, friends and, if possible, work with a career coach.

The good news is, she is convinced now is a great time for marketers returning to the workplace as brands are struggling to find great talent.

Rather than hiding a career gap, Lindsey Fish agrees marketers should be proud.

Determined to “reignite” her marketing career, Fish initially left the corporate world in 2013 after being told flexibility wasn’t an option following maternity leave. Setting up her own events management business, she also founded Mums Enterprise, a child-friendly business event aimed at helping mums return to work.

You can take a role that’s beneath your pay grade to fully build up your confidence again.

Lindsey Fish

Following a two-year career break in 2018 after suffering post-natal depression with her second pregnancy, Fish took on a part-time marketing admin role to regain her confidence and freelanced for return to work organisation Inclusivity Partners. In March she returned to full-time work as a partner programme specialist at BT Wholesale.

Through her work with Inclusivity Partners, Fish helped senior women return to work after career breaks spanning anything from 18 months to 12 years. She explains returners often take roles beneath their skillset and pay grade just to get their foot in the door.

However, Fish questions if some brands are paying lip service to the importance of returner programmes.

“It might appear on the surface that they are taking some action to tackle this, but I see a lot of box-ticking going on to make it appear they are being diverse in their flexibility to recruit talent,” she states.

From a business perspective, Fish believes many HR teams aren’t trained to support career breakers returning to the workforce. Bridging the confidence gap is crucial, which is why she suggests introducing specific goal setting, buddies and coaching.

Fish urges her “reigniter” peers to give themselves time out and take baby steps back into the workforce.

“I had a breakdown, which is why I didn’t work for two years. I did a lot of work on myself getting my mental health back to where it should be, getting my confidence back. Even applying for the part-time role in 2020 was scary, but it was only from taking that role that I was able to get the confidence back to where I am today,” she explains.

“You can take a role that’s beneath your pay grade to fully build up your confidence again. You don’t have to go all guns blazing straight away.”

Regaining confidence

A founding member of the MiMs community, Su Button was made redundant from her role as marketing manager at the Hempstead Valley Shopping Centre in Gillingham on the final day of furlough in October 2020.

Having spent 15 years with the organisation – a third of her life – the redundancy came as a shock. Even so, Button was determined to help the marketing executive she job shared with find a new role. Task complete, Button started working as support staff at her daughter’s primary school in November 2020, knowing she would struggle to find a marketing role at her level of seniority.

Passionate that marketers shouldn’t apologise for their career gap, Button doesn’t want her peers to feel embarrassed by taking a stop gap role.

“Somebody looked at my CV and said: ‘Why have you gone from marketing to a support assistant in a school? You’ll need to define that. Is that the route you now want to go down?’” Button recalls.

“It was obvious that it was a stop gap. It was a fantastic role at the time, but it was also national minimum wage, so it wasn’t where I wanted my career to go.”

Having left the school support role in July, Button is currently upskilling via a leadership in communication course from Socially Mobile, a not-for-profit group bringing underrepresented groups into leadership. She questions how many of her peers have left marketing completely feeling there is no route back.

I remember coming away from the interview thinking, I led that interview and knew exactly what I was talking about, so why should I undersell myself?

Luisa Robertson

“There is a skills gap and a shortage of skilled people, so why aren’t brands looking for these people? The employers that are should be shouting it from the rooftops, because there would be so many people who would want those jobs,” she suggests.

Another marketer on the Socially Mobile course is Luisa Robertson, who currently works two days a week as a communications manager. Pre-career break she was a senior communications manager for an NHS Trust, but after suffering post-natal depression decided to take time out to be with her family.

She says the course has reminded her how much she knows and helped her regain confidence. Robertson has made a point of leaving her career break on her CV as it reflects the experiences that make her who she is today. However, it has been a journey.

When she first decided to get back into the workforce, Robertson recalls getting to the final two for a job, before being told to apply for a more junior role.

“A comms director of an NHS Trust said: ‘You’re doing the right thing levelling yourself down while you regain your confidence and skills’,” she explains.

“I remember coming away from the interview thinking, I led that interview and knew exactly what I was talking about, so why should I undersell myself?”

Robertson describes the MiMs community as an amazing source of support, while she highly recommends one-to-one coaching to regain confidence. Building a network of friends and following your passions also feeds confidence, she suggests, which translates into your professional life.

Finding flexibility

Hannah Strong was due to start back from her maternity leave on 1 April 2020, less than a month into the first national lockdown.

A head of PPC for six years, Strong was returning to a new role as head of marketing on four days a week. She recalls feeling a sense of imposter syndrome that she had been “out of the game too long” during mat leave to speak confidently about what was new in PPC.

She returned to work at the same time three new mums were put on furlough by the agency. Balancing no nursery support, a new role, a team member leaving and still breastfeeding, Strong asked her boss two weeks later if she could be put on furlough.

Fast forward to October 2020 and now embarking on her second pregnancy, Strong realised the head of marketing role wasn’t a good fit.

“We were trying to find a place where we could fit together and I wanted to give it a shot, but by six months in I realised this wasn’t the role for me long term. To go from a very specialist role to a more general role, I didn’t feel like I’m making the most of my seven years in PPC,” she explains.

Strong had been exploring freelance work since 2019 and by the time she went on mat leave again in May 2021 had seven freelance PPC clients. Seeing the business was growing, her husband suggested taking shared parental leave, enabling Strong to leave her corporate role in January.

I hadn’t considered freelance as an option for myself. I always thought I’d be climbing up the ladder.

Hannah Strong

“I felt like I took the head of marketing job because I didn’t have the confidence to get a PPC job elsewhere. The main reason I wanted to go freelance, 70% was the children, because I hadn’t considered freelance as an option for myself. I always thought I’d be climbing up the ladder,” she explains.

“Then 30% was Covid. It cemented the fact I can work from home. I’m quite a people person and I was worried about not having the camaraderie, but I haven’t really missed it because everyone has had to get used to working from home.”

Strong believes it is crucial male leaders like her husband role model the benefits for shared parental leave, as it sends a message to younger staff that a different way is possible.

Meet the brands who are strengthening their business by standing up for parents

Another marketer who moved into the freelance space is Charlotte Rush. Having held senior marketing roles in the recruitment sector for years, Rush had a request for part-time work turned down after returning from mat leave in 2016. This was despite having worked at the company for six years and presenting the option of using the money saved on her salary to employ a marketing executive.

Struggling to find senior roles on a part-time basis, Rush decided to apply for lower level roles on full time, get her foot in the door with an interview and then explain she was at director level and open to working four days a week. The strategy worked.

However, after returning from her second pregnancy in 2019 Rush was made redundant. She was introduced to a brand that had lost its marketing director in the middle of a rebrand and was able to negotiate working three days a week. Then came Covid and another redundancy, which encouraged Rush to strike out on her own as a freelance consultant, setting her definition of flexibility.

Looking back, she recalls being advised to leave her maternity leave and redundancies off her CV, a suggestion Rush fundamentally disagrees with. All those experiences have made her the marketer she is today.

“Essentially everything [in motherhood] is a project management task, because you’re trying to get them here, there and everywhere – and everyone’s got to be happy,” she explains. “Therefore, when you employ me you get a much more effective Charlotte.”