Career Breaks, Broken ATS Systems, and Alumni

by Deb Khan in Partners   |    Last Edited: 03rd July 2019

Lots of remarkable people – some of the very best talent – take a career break. But they still need help coming back. Here’s why we wrote a book to help them.

Increasingly, people are taking career breaks. It’s easy to say “we’re dealing with it”, except most companies are not. A gap in someone’s CV is often seen as a problem. Gaps are often incompatible with Automated Tracking Systems and they are a challenge for so many hiring managers. A common response is:

“We could probably consider them, providing they haven’t been out for too long. I mean, anyone who’s been out for 6 or 7 months is going to be really out of touch…”

Yet career breaks happen for multiple reasons: relocation, caring responsibilities, mental health issues, burnout, opportunities to try a new venture, and start your own business, prolonged periods of study, travel. Equally, some people tread water. Many of these people will be in your alumni, who know your company well already. A positive is that more people are recognising that we’re facing an age of disruption: the hundred-year life and rapid technological change means we’re all likely to have multiple careers, and need to be much better at pivoting from one to the other, taking breaks, and shifting our focus and energy. So how do we deal with this?

It appeared that every day there was a story in the media about the lack of women in senior roles, and, simultaneously, how companies are struggling to find talent. Yet no one telling people whose careers have slowed down the tactics they need to get back. The straight-talking, direct ‘here’s how’ type talk.

We wanted to do that: to help people learn about how to get back to work or accelerate their careers. We wanted to write a book. Practical, colourful, useful. We weren’t met with much enthusiasm from the publishing industry, who responded to our proposal with:

“Career books for women don’t sell”

“Arianna Huffington & Sheryl Sandberg have said pretty much all there is to say on this subject”

“Have you thought of making it gender neutral?”

So why did we persist? 

Honestly? Because we thought it was needed. We searched and searched and could find nothing out there that puts this level of information, insight and practical advice all into one place. In a way that’s accessible, interesting, creative and occasionally, funny. 

Lisa had taken a break from working when her children were 4 and 6, after her child-care arrangements had blown up and she had missed out on a promotion. She felt as though she was failing both at work and at home. What no one had told her was that having young children is a temporary condition. Fast forward 4 years, and there she was, wondering what had happened to her career, wondering what she was going to do for the next 20 years.

I had taken a different tack, becoming a freelance consultant specialising in creative organisations, when it became clear that a career as a theatre director didn’t fit well with being the mother of two young boys.

So that’s how we found ourselves sitting on that park bench one day, looking at the women in the cafe, fresh from the school drop off. We realised we knew them all as “mums of” and “used to be’s”. Cassie is Archie’s mum, she used to be an advertising exec; Ayesha is Ora’s mum, used to be a lawyer. You get the drift.

Time For Some Fact Finding

We had a hunch that many of these women might be feeling like Lisa.  Ready to return; ambitious for the next phase of their working lives.

So we did some research. Working with University of Edinburgh Business School. We reached 2,000 individual women, crunched responses to over 40,000 questions and ran countless workshops to hear their views. Most told us they did want to return to work, to reclaim their careers – and outlined the obstacles and challenges they could see ahead.

A Common Refrain

“I’m 40. My children are 10 and 12. That gives me 20 years to make a discernible difference.”

Many women felt the same: and many had the same questions and frustrations:

“Surely someone out there values the skills and experience I have? I had a baby, not a lobotomy.”

“Why is it so difficult to find flexible work? Can’t I be trusted to decide where and when work gets done?”

“I’ve sent my CV to twenty or more recruiters. I never even get a call back.”

“Is it worth it? What I earn will barely cover childcare.”

The Bones of a Book

Do books have bones? Not sure, but they definitely have body matter. And in the course of our work, we came across lots of experts who could provide the answers to some of these questions. 

We spoke to leaders in this field about applicant tracking systems, and how they don’t recognise career breaks. We learnt about the necessity of a long-term view when thinking about the financial worth of returning to work, and ways to make flexible working a reality.

Added to that, Lisa and I had spent years using models, tactics, tools and theories to help organisations improve and change. It was our jobs, we knew they worked. We decided it was about time we translated all of the hard core learning material we knew inside out and made it work for women.

Driven by an overwhelming desire to give people the information they needed, in one place, we concluded that this book had to be written. 

So here it is. It draws on the advice of the experts above and more; it contains stories and anecdotes from over 30 women and men who wanted to share their experience; it references all the books and articles on the subject that we think are noteworthy; and each chapter ends with a checklist of actions and list of other useful resources. In one place.

And Finally, Arianna

Turns out the brilliant, inspirational Arianna Huffington disagrees with those publishers. Meeting her over the summer last year, she was in total agreement that getting more women back into the workplace is a hugely important cause. She agreed to endorse our book:

“We talk a lot about gender parity and how we need more women at all levels of the workplace. But we’re never going to get there if we don’t create a system that doesn’t punish women who need to take a career break. We need to do everything we can to help talented, experienced women get back into the workplace. This practical guide does just that.”


Deb Khan is a strategist, leadership & pitch coach, trainer, writer and speaker. She helps businesses grow through working with their people. Deb established her own business in 1998 and has a proven track record of affecting change & growth across a wide range of global businesses in the advertising, technology, luxury brands, architectural, charity and education sectors.

Since being published, the book has been nominated for the CMI Management Book of the Year, 2019. We’re the only first-time authors on that list. We’ve also found out that a law firm gives a copy to every one of their employees who take parental leave.

She’s Back: Your Guide to Returning to Work is published by Urbane Publications, and available to buy here.

Twitter: https://twitter.com/debkhan

Insta: https://www.instagram.com/debkhan/?hl=en