Returning to work after maternity leave can be a daunting prospect for any woman but, for those who have taken a longer break, the process becomes even harder.
“I wish I could find a flexible job,” says Ferah Koculu from Turkey, who took time out from her banking career when her son was born over two years ago.
“First of all you have to manage everything for the baby and then it’s hard to find a competitive job.”
Ms Koculu was among 90 women at a Return to Work Career Fair in Dubai at the start of this month, which paired those looking to return to the workplace with companies willing to offer flexible positions.
“These are all women that have all had a career break and looking to go back to work. We had over 2,000 applications and my team shortlisted those down for the clients to then interview,” says Louise Karim, the managing director of specialist recruitment firm Mums@Work, which hosted the event.
Global firms such as Visa, EY, Standard Chartered, Hilton and Apco Worldwide had permanent and part-time positions on offer as well as returnships – paid short-term contracts that bridge the gap between time off and senior roles.
The career fair reflects the changing mood in the UAE jobs market, which has shifted from a culture of full-time employment to one more accommodating of part-time workers.
It also highlights a growing acceptance of mothers who want to work under flexible conditions rather than commit themselves to full-time employment.
For Sara Ghazzawi, a mother of a daughter, five, and son, three, the event gave her the reassurance she needed.
Her family relocated to Dubai from Kuwait in November and while she wanted a full-time position in the banking sector, she also wanted flexibility.
With an interview booked with Standard Chartered at the Career Fair, Ms Ghazzawi was concerned she could not commit to lengthy hours.
“Kuwait was less of a challenging environment with a better work-life balance and everybody kept saying you are not going to get that in Dubai. I realise it is a more challenging here so I know I’ll have to put in a few extra hours but not the crazy hours you hear talked about,” she says, adding that listening to a panel of career coaches left her feeling encouraged.
“I feel less pressure now that I see some big companies are going in that direction and being supportive of your other roles outside the professional workplace."
While Ms Karim says the aim of the Career Fair was to encourage candidates to showcase themselves rather than to offer roles, the outcome proved far more successful than a simple meet and greet.
The consulting firm EY, for example. offered seven returnship positions on the day, with a further five offered after second round of interviews.
Standard Chartered requested second interviews for 25 of the 33 candidates it interviewed at the event and Hilton and Visa are following up with six candidates for permanent and flexible roles.
“It’s a sea change,” says David Mackenzie, the managing director of recruitment firm Mackenzie Jones, the parent company of Mums@Work. “EY brought in 20 recruiters to the event, that’s how seriously they are taking it.”
So what is driving the shift towards increasing flexible working options for mothers?
“The rising cost of living,” says Mr Mackenzie. “The UAE has become quite an expensive place to live and the salaries by default have almost come down because the packages are no longer frontier packages that cover schooling and housing.
“With the frontier packages, you typically had the husband working and the wife at home but now both parties need to work to have a decent standard of living.”
Another driver is the global focus on gender diversity and reducing the pay gap between the sexes in the workplace. A number of UAE organisations announced new initiatives to increase female participation to tie in with International Women's Day this month. And a poll released this month by the jobs site Monster Gulf found that 60 per cent of those surveyed believed their organisations were putting in “considerable efforts” to ensure gender parity.
“I am on the UN women’s empowerment taskforce, which is pushing forward this gender balance,” says Ms Karim. “The UAE Government has gender balance targets, so we are 124th for gender equality now and [the authorities] want to be in the top 25 by 2012. That’s a massive undertaking so initiatives like the career fair support what they are trying to achieve.”
Another factor encouraging more women to restart their careers in the UAE is lengthening expat stays in the country. Many families choose to stay longer, with women considering a return to the workplace as their children grow older.
“That has driven people to look at mums as a valuable resource,” says Mr Mackenzie, whose very reason for setting up Mums@Work in the first place was to encourage businesses to capitalise on the untapped talent in the region.
A change in the law has also complemented the shift in sentiment from the region’s employers, he says. While in the past visa regulations made it difficult for spouses to secure part-time options, women can now work on their husband’s visa, provided a No Objection Certificate is signed.
“Then you just get a labour card rather than a visa," says Mr Mackenzie. "It’s very cost-effective for an employer and many do not realise they can employ a mum, pay her part time and only get a labour card, which is much cheaper than a full visa.”
Mums@Work first launched in 2016 to match job-seeking mothers with potential employers and establish a new community through regular networking events.
Today the company is followed by 50,000 women and has trained and placed over 2,000 into roles.
While the company's initial focus was part-time options, the returnship post has also become a core part of its business. The concept, pioneered by Goldman Sachs in 2008 – which has since trademarked the term - emerged in the UAE in recent years when companies such as GE and Virgin Megastore Middle East were leading the charge.
“Our first focus was flexibility,” says Ms Karim, “which we still stand for as it’s one of our brand values. But I kept seeing CVs coming in of women with amazing experience, such as 10 years with the big four, and we couldn’t get them in front of people because they’d had this break.
“So we trialled 12-week returnships last summer with Visa and IBM and they worked fantastically."
Which is how the company then decided to host the region’s first Return to Work Career Fair. At the full-day event, women networked over a breakfast before attending a question and answer session with career coaches on how to prepare themselves for the interviews, followed by another session with the employers themselves.
However, worries over returning to work were still clear to see. Women bombarded panellists with questions such as ‘how do I broach the subject of flexibility?’ and ‘what do I ask for salary wise?’
“They are almost embarrassed to say I need flexibility,” says Mr Mackenzie.
Jenise Fernandes, from Goa, in India, was hoping to secure a full-time administration role at the fair. A mum to a daughter, six, and son, 14 months, she took a break from full-time work after her daughter was born, taking on short-term contracts to keep her hand in.
"Now I want to go full time but it’s scary, not professionally but personally," she says. "You have a family and you want to go out but you wonder how it will all fall into place - the logistics of it all."
Another mum asked how she should explain the gap in her CV: “Do you highlight it and make a joke of it and say ‘Home CEO’ or do you keep it hidden?”
While the career coaches told her to take ownership of her time away, marketing herself as a "master birthday planner" or "master vacation planner", the recruiters had a very different take.
“As the interviewer I don’t want the only thing I remember about you after you walk out that door is that your child didn’t want to have porridge this morning,” says Jane Siney, head of HR UAE at Standard Chartered. “I want to hear about the last big thing you worked on while you were working and how you were successful in that.”
Rachel Ellyard, Mena Talent Leader at EY, had a similar stance, saying the candidate should judge the audience in front of them.
“If you sense that they aren’t too receptive to you being CEO of the household – which probably a lot wouldn’t be - then I would err on the side of caution. Instead focus on what you can contribute to the business that you are trying to get back into,” she says.
Interestingly, many of the female recruiters opted to return to work directly after maternity leave rather than taking a longer career break. This flagged up another concern for the 90 candidates: would they be judged harshly by other women for taking an extended career break rather than returning to work directly from maternity leave?
“If you had come to me 10 years ago I would have been judgemental,” says Elizabeth Sen, deputy managing director at the communications consultancy Apco Worldwide. “But we are on this growth journey and now there is flexibility and room to grow and lots of mentorship."
Ms Sen, who has two sons, ages eight and 14, says she returned to work after 45 days maternity leave.
"I really slogged it out and had to come back and my personal orientation was 'you bloody well work it out and get the logistics right, get the maid right'.
"But having spent 17 years in the workplace what I’m realising is that it really doesn’t matter. If that person is out there and delivering, then we should get that person.”
It is this changing mood that Mums@Work wants to capitalise on; the company now plans to host its Career Fair twice a year with more candidates and companies involved each time, as well as smaller events focused on specific sectors.
"We set up Mums@Work two and a half years ago and it’s taken that long to get to where we are now," adds Mr Mackenzie. "It’s educating people that working mums are a valuable resource and we’re only just there."