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Career Breaks for Black Women Professionals

Career Breaks for Black Women Professionals

During the pandemic, nearly 2.3 million women have either left or were forced out the workforce due to layoffs, taking time to care for children, or simply burnout. Unfortunately, Black women have been disproportionately impacted by this, putting their mental health at risk. 

LinkedIn released research that sheds light on why Black women are leaving the corporate workforce and what companies can do to de-stigmatize career breaks for women. Career breaks are more common that you would think, with 75 percent of Black women professionals in the United States having experienced one in their career.

BGN had the opportunity to speak via Zoom with Imani Dunbar, Head of Equity Strategy at LinkedIn, about the concept of career breaks and her own personal experience, why career breaks are important for Black women professionals, and what companies can do to be supportive.

Can you explain the concept of career breaks and tell us about your personal experience?

We conducted a survey, and what we saw was that in the United States is that 73 percent of professionals at some point in their career have had a career break. We found that 74 percent of Black professionals and 68 percent of white professionals have taken a career break. There’s a disconnect there that Black professionals are taking career breaks at a higher rate. There’s been over 2 million women who have exited the workforce — voluntarily or involuntarily. There’s a disproportionate impact among Black women in that number. There’s numbers and data to support that there is work to be done, and that professionals are having different experiences, as it relates to taking career breaks.

The concept of career breaks is that many people think about them in a more traditional sense. There are non-negotiable points where there is a life change — being a new parent, getting married, or being a caretaker for someone. That often requires them to exit the workforce for some period of time. But the reality is there are also other events that are not life-changing that people might not consider a career break, but we actually see people take them all the time.

This can be anything from mental health or overall physical well-being to advancing their education or taking additional studies. So, there’s all different reasons why someone might be inclined to take a career break. It varies from person to person, so there’s no one fit. It is a need that can be proactive or reactive.

In my personal experience, I recently took a seven-week career break. For me, I had reached a point where I needed to make sure that I was able to heal myself and continue operating at the pace in the work that I’m doing. As Head of Equity Strategy for LinkedIn, the work that we are undertaking, just in general, is heavy work. At the same time, being Black, female, and also part of the LGBTQ community, it started to feel like I was always in the space of my demographic. But then you layer on the work I do during my day job — I felt like I was being in that particular space to the power of two or three. So, if you don’t guard and manage your time, your health, and your well-being, you could end up in a space where you’re heavily weighted. I felt it relevant to take a career break to do what I needed to do to re-balance myself physically, mentally, and spiritually.

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I’m thinking back to when I worked in corporate America, and I would have been hesitant to even approach my employer with this for the fear of backlash during annual review time or getting promoted. What is the best way to approach an employer with this?

You’re absolutely right in terms of the stigma or concern. For Black professionals in the United States, 64 percent believed there was some type of stigma with taking a break. In other cases, 55 percent of Black professionals fear that they may be viewed as less attractive if they have a career break on their resume. That needs to change.

In terms of how to approach it, every situation is different. But I think the first thing is making sure the person understands the “why” behind the career break; why they need it. Also, why it’s important for the individual but also the business; the team you are a part of, the clients you may support. It’s understanding the impact that taking a career break not only has on you but on the folks you connect with. It’s also important to think of it through the lens of, “What will happen if I don’t take a career break?”

It’s also important to find an ally. Maybe there is someone either at or outside your company who has gone through the process of asking for a career break. Figure out how they went about it and what can be helpful. Anytime someone is doing something, the idea of not doing it alone can be encouraging and powerful. For something as sensitive as taking a career break, it’s essential to find those allies who can coach and guide you.

How can companies help support employees when taking a career break?

One of the most powerful things that companies can do is to lead by example — people being clear and vocal about it: here’s the career break I took, here’s why I took it, here’s how I went about it. Another thing companies can do is certainly put policies and programs in place and thinking about this as almost a strategic priority when thinking about talent development and talent acquisition. When you look at the conversations on our platform, over the past two years, there has been an 83 percent increase in job postings that use the word “flexibility.” There has been a 343 percent increase in the types of companies mentioning flexibility in their actual posts.

In our interview, Dunbar also revealed that 50 percent of hiring managers feel that career breaks have become more common since the pandemic. It reminded me how Black women often get the message that we exist to help others (and our employers) live their best lives at the exclusion of our own joy. We’re constantly striving for the next level of excellence while getting further pulled away from our own peace of mind. This is a problem. If we can take time away from our careers to do what we need to do, it can open up a new world for us in the most amazing ways.

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