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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

Advice for UAE mums who want to re-enter the workplace

Even those who are willing to work full-time face barriers

Helen McGuire of Hopscotch, an organisation that prepares women for their return to work and matching them with flexible roles. Swetlana Gasetski
Helen McGuire of Hopscotch, an organisation that prepares women for their return to work and matching them with flexible roles. Swetlana Gasetski

Women take career breaks for all kinds of reasons. Some, like Tanya Hills, move abroad with their husbands and have to leave their jobs behind. Others, like Shelley Pond, aren’t ready to leave their kids once their maternity leave (often just 45 days) is up. Getting back into the workplace, however, may not be as simple as they had hoped.

“I desperately wanted to work when I moved to Dubai in 2015,” says Hills, a lawyer from South Africa. “I had invested too much in my career and education to sit at home and be a housewife. But it was difficult to find a flexible job in my line of work and also be able to pick up the kids after school.”

“It was much, much more difficult than I expected,” agrees Pond, a marketing and communications manager who began looking for work shortly after her daughter’s first birthday. “Nobody was open to flexible working hours or working from home for a portion of the week, and resuming my old agency hours with late nights just wasn’t going to work.”

After an uncomfortable period of searching – 18 months in Pond’s case – both found professional roles that would work around their family commitments. But they are still among the lucky few, according to Louise Karim, managing director of Mums@Work, a consultancy that is helping mothers return to work. “I have small children myself, so I know how hard it is: schools finish at 1.30pm and nurseries are not cheap. But employers in the UAE rarely offer part-time or flexible jobs. It’s all or nothing, so you opt for the nothing if you can afford to.”

Even those who are willing to work full-time face barriers, says Helen McGuire of Hopscotch, which is likewise preparing women for their return to work and matching them with flexible roles. “Confidence is a huge barrier for women,” she says. “Even if they’ve just been away for six months or a year, it can really affect how they see themselves – particularly in today’s fast-moving world.”

Both organisations offer practical support, be it career counselling, interview practice or one-to-one training sessions. Helpfully, for people who may have lost touch with their professional networks, they also link women together – Mums@Work, for instance, has built a community of 47,000 social-media followers and counting.

That kind of moral support can be especially helpful when employers are not always receptive to applicants who have been out of work for a while. “We’ve certainly heard some horror stories around interviewers almost instantly losing interest in women who have that ‘gap’ on their CVs, even though there is clearly a very good reason,” McGuire adds.

“Many employers seem to feel that mothers are less productive and treat us the same as fresh-out-of-school graduates,” says Divya Raju, an accountant who found a full-time role at Lush through Mums@Work. “That mindset needs to change, and a mother’s prior experience should be more valued.”

With the perception of working mothers causing an obvious problem, it’s no accident that the women behind Mums@Work and Hopscotch share a background in communications. “We are trail­blazing,” says Karim. “There’s an education process happening around flexible working, because a lot of employers don’t understand the benefits. It’s also a change of perceptions from: ‘Oh, that’s a nice mum job.’ The women on our database are professional women who have long [years of] experience in their fields.”

To prove it, Mums@Work has created the Return to Work programme, a 12-week ­“returnship” to get experienced professional women back to work after a break. More than 600 women have applied for just eight roles, which will include working on a strategy for Visa and managing a digital project for IBM.

Crucially, the employers are sympathetic to women’s needs in terms of training, rebuilding confidence and allowing flexible hours. Enlightened recruiters such as Rachel Alidoosti, regional HR manager at Virgin Megastore, also realise that they stand to benefit from the perspectives returners bring with them. “Taking a break after having a child is a completely natural and beautiful choice, and we feel it is important to recognise the transferable qualities, skills and knowledge that motherhood brings with it,” she says.

“Talent needs to grow in different formats, and the format of mums returning to work is particularly valuable,” agrees Elizabeth Sen of Apco, an American PR company that will offer three returnships. “Women are extremely good at multitasking. They have this grounded ability to look at complex stuff and say: ‘Here’s how I would slice it up.’ Maturity is very key, and just sheer experience. In a business like ours, they’re not going to feel hassled by client demands.”

Offering flexible jobs is also a great way for employers to access talent and experience that they might not otherwise be able to afford, suggests Karim. “We’ve found that a real sweet spot for us is SMEs. Let’s say if you need an HR director, but can’t justify their full-time salary, you can get someone in part-time and pay them pro rata. And you’ve got that experienced person there to mentor and develop your younger team.”

Hills is a good example. Having worked as a senior state advocate in South Africa, she is now employed as a legal adviser to the fast-growing Ourspace Group, working four hours at the office each morning and then logging on again from home. “The fact that I can work and be with my kids in the afternoon, is a big help, and it means that I don’t leave my job in the lurch if there is something urgent that needs to be done,” she says.

Mutual trust is key to making this sort of flexibility work, says Clare Wood, who works from home as marketing manager for an export company. “I work 20 hours a week, but I am able to work some of those hours in the office (typically, Monday to Wednesday) and the rest from home. There is trust on both sides – so as long as I get my work done, there is scope for me to fit my hours around my family life.”

Despite these success stories, the UAE is still lagging behind. “In other parts of the world, part-time or flexible work is simply the norm,” says McGuire. “I’ve heard of women looking for flexible roles here in advertising, for example, finding none and then being offered suitable jobs several times over in their home countries. Until we properly catch up, we are not only missing out on valuable female talent, but also losing it from our region.”

The good news is that, with initiatives such as Emirati Women’s Day, and the Vice President and Prime Minister, and Ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid also on the record as supporting women’s empowerment, gender equality is very much on the political agenda. Karim hopes to expand Mums@Work, to offer more places on the Return to Work scheme and to support female entrepreneurs. McGuire has global plans for the Hopscotch brand, and is working with businesses to bring returners and high-profile employers together.

With more women proving their value to employers at every life stage, it is to be hoped that many more opportunities will arise for the tens of thousands of mothers who have registered their CVs with the two consultancies.

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Case Study:

Dima Zalatimo, external consultant, Apco

I lived in Washington DC for about 20 years, working as a news producer for a variety of TV networks, both American and Arab. Then I left work to have my kids, who are now 8 and 10, and five years ago we moved to Dubai for my husband’s work.

Earlier this year, I looked up and my children had grown and didn’t need me as much. I felt ready to jump back into the workforce, but approached it in a slightly different way – thinking about what I wanted to do and what would add value.

I came across Apco while researching DC-based communications firms. When I read the story of Margery Kraus, the working mother who founded it in 1984, I was inspired enough to cold-call its HR department. I met [deputy managing director] Liz Sen, we hit it off and I joined as an external consultant.

News has always been in my DNA, and I’d stayed engaged during my time off. I was very fortunate to be put on a really exciting project in government affairs, as well as a philanthropic project in education - topics that are really close to my heart.

Of course, being around much younger people who haven’t taken a break from work, you feel you have catching up to do. But the environment is such that I’ve always had the right support.

I feel like a very different employee now from when I was in my 20s: more patient, tolerant and mature. As a mother, you juggle a lot and that’s an asset, too.

I did have some anxiety about juggling the two roles but Apco offered me a lot of flexibility – if I need to I can work from home, which is really helpful.

My kids are curious about what I do when I’m not home, and maybe a little anxious about what’s going to happen when school starts. But I have enough flexibility that I’m not going to miss anything important like assemblies and concerts.

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