Jennifer Knapp’s professional trajectory will sound familiar to many women.
She worked as a social worker before having kids, then chose to stay home with them. As her children entered middle school and grew more independent, she wanted to go back to work, but wasn’t sure how to explain the 12 years since she was last employed.
“It was intimidating because I had a huge gap in my résumé. So I did explain that, which in its own right is somewhat risky, because then you’re automatically displaying that you have kids,” Knapp said. “I feel like women with children are discriminated against in the hiring process, because they’re considered a liability, a headache.”
The now-44-year-old took a job working at a nearby resort and spa.
Once the coronavirus hit, she left that job. And now she’s left with having to explain another employment gap.
Knapp is one of more than 2.5 million women who left the workforce during the pandemic. Industries like hospitality and caregiving — overwhelmingly composed of women — were initially hardest hit by the pandemic.
September employment data showed the gender gap explicitly, as mothers largely emerged as the parent managing remote learning and 865,000 women left the workforce.
In February, the gender gap in unemployment started approaching parity as more schools reopened in some parts of the country. By then, women closed the gap to 56 percent of pandemic job losses. In March, 492,000 women reentered the workforce, another hopeful sign.
Still, the journey back into a job, much less the right job, has always been difficult for women once they leave the formal workforce.
Last week, professional social networking site LinkedIn started rolling out features in an effort to normalize employment gaps taken to raise children or care for parents or other family members — work that typically falls to women.
“All too often, people are penalized for taking time out of the workforce to care for their families. Employers are often hesitant to hire people who have gaps in their work history or will push them toward ‘mother-friendly’ jobs that are part-time and offer low pay,” said sociologist Marianne Cooper, a senior research scholar at Stanford University’s VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab.
LinkedIn says it hopes the move will be a step toward normalizing such gaps in formal employment.
“We’ve heard from our members, particularly women and mothers who have temporarily stopped working, that they need more ways to reflect career gaps on their profile due to parenting and other life responsibilities,” LinkedIn’s director of engineering Bef Ayenew said. “We introduced new job titles, including ‘stay-at-home mom,’ ‘stay-at-home dad’ and ‘stay-at-home parent,’ to allow full-time parents and caretakers to more accurately display their roles.”
Over the course of the next several weeks, if you use one of these new stay-at-home job descriptions and set the employment type field to “self-employed,” you will no longer need to specify a company or employer for your online résumé on the platform, according to Ayenew.
The company is also adding a new field specifically for employment gaps including “parental leave,” “family care” and “sabbatical.”
The changes are global, but won’t appear as an option instantly for everyone.
While seeing one’s life choices reflected on a pulldown menu can be validating, it doesn’t guarantee that the stigma of leaving a job or career for personal reasons disappears, Cooper said.
“Adding these options pushes forward a much-needed cultural shift, which is to have caregiving come to be seen as a normal and important part of our life course. The question though is how will potential employers respond?” she said.
Knapp knows the value of the work she did: risk assessment, budgeting, project management, nursing, transportation and logistics. Yet, she knows some potential employers may not appreciate all of the skills needed to raise children successfully.
They’re “just going to see stay-at-home mom,” she said. “Yet there are entire funny movies about dads who have to stay home with their kids for a weekend. And absurdity ensues because they can’t hold it together for 20 minutes.”
Jennifer Roberts, 45, worked in marketing, packaging and product development before having three children and moving to Philadelphia from New York. Her résumé currently reflects an eight-year gap from the formal workforce.
“If I never took the gap, I would never go into an interview and say I have children because I feel that would be held against me,” Roberts said.
She said she recently applied to 40 jobs and had promising interviews at just one. She never got an offer, even though the position was several levels below the role she last held.
LinkedIn says the company’s data suggest the stigma of employment gaps is already fading.
“While 72 percent of job seekers believe there’s a stigma associated with having a career gap, 79 percent of hiring managers today would hire a candidate with a career gap on their résumé,” Ayenew said.
Kate Brummett, a technical recruiter in Houston, says the answer may be more nuanced.
“The pandemic is a special situation in which most employers will be more flexible than before. They have seen the exits from their own organizations and will be motivated to rehire former employees where they can because ramp-up time is lower,” she said.
“Women who have been out of the workforce for the last year should not settle for lower pay or lesser roles to ‘get back in the game,’” Brummett said, adding that those who have been out of the market for more than five years may want to stay flexible.
Quiana Glide, 31, left her last job working in mental health at a nonprofit in Kalamazoo, Mich., because of a very difficult pregnancy. She stayed home during her pregnancy and the first year of her daughter’s life. When she wanted to get back to work, she didn’t know how to explain her time out of the office.
“During the interview, they did ask about my job gap and I was kind of ashamed to talk about it,” she said. “As a typical millennial, I’ve had a lot of different jobs but no huge gaps of nearly two years. No one I know has explained how to market parenting skills. I think if the language was there and more people were aware of it, maybe the stigma would go away.”
She ended up taking an internship at an LGBTQ nonprofit, figuring it would be easier to switch gears and come in at a lower level.
“We shouldn’t be ashamed of starting families or raising our kids,” she said. “We should be proud of the skills we’ve learned through parenting, and employers should view them as valuable.”