My advice to women who have children is to treat maternity leave seriously. [...] I do think maternity leave should be treated with a lot more seriousness and respect than when I gave it.

There are many reasons that employees may choose to take some time away from work. Although the assumption is often that a career break is due to pregnancy and/or parental leave, employees may take time off work for myriad other reasons, including caring for an elderly relative or spouse, physical or mental health issues, travel, volunteering, personal and professional development, or additional training or study. As such, taking a career break is becoming an increasingly common phenomenon. Nonetheless, career interruptions are much more common amongst women than men [1], as parental leave is still the most common form of extended leave. As such, a career break can have considerable impact on women’s careers, leadership, and economic stability.

Taking time away from work need not be a daunting process. However, women working in research may feel that taking a break for childcare or other responsibilities will leave them at a disadvantage in their career. Careful preparation alongside strong support from your institution can ensure that taking a career break need not negatively impact your career. In this section we explore the best way to return to work after taking time away.


Why is this an issue for women?

Taking time away from work is increasingly common.

In a survey by recruitment firm Hays [2], sixty-four percent of female and twenty-nine percent of male workers in Australia and New Zealand reported having taken a career break. For women, maternity and parental leave were the most common form of break, followed by travel. Men cited travel and studying or retraining as their most common reasons for taking time away from work. 

Although career breaks are relatively common, employees still worry about how a break is perceived.

Men and women both report high levels of concerns about finding employment after a break [3], particularly with being able to demonstrate the relevance of their skills following time off. This concern is not unfounded, given that research has shown career breaks can increase perceptions of skill degradation, low commitment, and low ambition [4]. Career interruptions have also been consistently shown to incur a wage penalty [5], which is true for both women and – sometimes to an even greater extent – men (Schnee & Reitman, 2006).


Taking time off from work for parental reasons results in greater penalties than taking time off for other reasons.

Arun, Arun & Borooah (2004) [6] compared wage penalties and role changes for women in Australia on the basis of their reason for taking leave. They found that women who took a short career break for reasons other than child rearing suffered comparatively smaller (5%) wage penalties compared to women who take short or long parental leave, who received a 10 and 17% wage penalty, respectively. Similarly, women who took a long, but not short, parental leave break were more likely to return to work in a different role or organisation than the one they left. Theunissen and colleauges (2011) [7] compared the effects of taking time off for different reasons, noting that a career break was detrimental for subsequent wages if it was due to family responsibilities or unemployment, but had no impact on wages if the leave was due to self-employment or furthering one’s education. As such, the act of taking a career break in and of itself is not detrimental; rather, the perceptions of potential employers regarding an employee’s human capital may vary depending on the type of break. 

Current policies in research


Workplaces may provide a range of options for leave that present opportunities for career breaks.

For example, many universities will offer much more generous parental leave packages than those mandated by governments, incentivise employees returning to work through the use of bonuses, or provide teaching support or reduction of duties [8]. Academic institutions and associated bodies, such as the Australian Research Council, also offer policies that can “stop the clock” for tenure track roles or provide “output relative to opportunity” calculations due to career interruptions. These policies are put into place to support employees who have had to take a break from their careers.

These policies have been shown to be effective in some ways.

For example, Manchester, Leslie, and Kramer (2010) [9] found that Stop the Clock policies were effective in allowing faculty more time to reach key performance indicators for promotions, and do not detrimentally affect promotion outcomes. Similarly, focus groups of faculty members show that university family-friendly policies can help with caring for new-born or newly adopted children and are generally perceived positively by staff [10], [11].

However, these types of policies can sometimes backfire if not implemented correctly.

Stop the Clock policies may negatively impact wages, with faculty who utilize this policy for family reasons reporting wages up to 4.1% lower than those who either did not use this policy or used it for non-family reasons. Some faculty fear negative repercussions [12] or the perception of “special treatment” [13] from using these policies, with men particularly likely to underutilise them [14]. Faculty in unsupportive departments were fearful of negative perceptions and reputational damage from taking leave [15]. As such, merely offering robust polices to help faculty manage career breaks may not be enough; organisational climate and expectations must also align with these policies to encourage their use.

Recommendations for Employees

Knowing some of the challenges that can arise from a career interruption can arm you with the knowledge of how to mitigate negative outcomes. Research has shown, for example, that making specific and actionable plans for returning to work is a strong predictor of women following through on their career intentions after the birth of their child, whether their intention was to return to work in a full- or part-time position [16]. As such, planning for a career break is essential for a smooth return to work.

HBR [17] offers the following recommendations for new parents returning to work:

1. Build your sense of self by aligning with your partner:

​If you are in a dual-career couple, ensure that you have mapped out an overarching, shared vision of what you and your partner’s lives will look like, and how you can collaborate – rather than compete – on improving and developing both your careers. Some key points to consider are your approach to parenting, what type of careers you are both aiming to develop, and how you will utilize your support network.

2. Communicate with your boss and lobby for what you need​

Manage up by communicating with your managers about your expectations, goals, and limits. Supportive managers may make well-intentioned but incorrect assumptions about your career intentions, whereas other managers may be oblivious to your changed needs. The key is to “pitch a pace, a plan, and a solution”. 

3. Understand the corporate culture you’re in and pace yourself

There is still an assumption of linear, 24/7 careers. Even if your workplace has great, family-friendly policies, management may not yet be aligned with them. Know your rights, but also be aware of what the unspoken rules are in your organisation by speaking with other employees with children.


The Wellcome trust have published a returner’s guide to research titled “Getting back into research after a career break”. This excellent resource provides the following key pointers for researchers coming back from any form of career interruption:


in touch


your niche


the right mentor

Hit the

ground running


to progress

Move towards independence

Finally, the website offers a variety of resources to help academics balance their careers and their families. Topics covered include career planning, work-life balance, parental leave, relocation, and returning to work, amongst others.


Recommendations for Employers 


There are many ways that employers can support women in research returning from a career interruption. Many universities have developed policies and strategies that support faculty returning from a break, especially those returning from the birth or adoption of a child. However, alignment between policies and the culture of departments can often be a sticking point.

Resource Solutions [18] offers the following tips for businesses for appealing to women on career breaks:

  1. Understand what women want from their jobs

  2. Don’t make your recruitment message too restrictive

  3. Ensure your brand appeals to women

  4. Use online communities, job boards, and networking events to raise brand awareness

  5. Expand your knowledge about flexible working practices

  6. Provide childcare support

  7. Offer well-being initiatives

  8. Make it easy for women to return to work

  9. Launch return-to-work programs

  10. Provide mentoring opportunities


Recommendations specific to the academic sector can be gleaned through research on gender pay gaps in universities and research sector roles:

  1. Entitlements to generous parental leave and provision of child-care can reduce economic and social penalties faced by mothers [19]

  2. Affording choice in parental leave, regulation of working hours, appropriate benefits, and effective childcare can help to reconcile family and employment [20]

  3. Alternative work arrangements to help improve gender equality in work and home spheres [21]

  4. Move beyond the narrow confines of evaluating work performance by publications, and taken into account criteria such as quality of teaching, innovation, pastoral care, training and professional development, and organizational citizenship [22]

  5. Forster (2001) [23] also provides a summary of similar suggestions by a range of authors:

    • Providing all young women academics with female mentors in order to provide support and guidance within a system that is still dominated by men

    • Re‐evaluating promotion procedures to give greater weight to non‐research activities and adopting a more women‐friendly concept of what constitutes “a career”

    • Introducing more flexible working hours and encouraging job sharing and part‐time work

    • Punishing overt or covert sexist behaviour by men more severely

    • Giving greater recognition to women’s family and domestic responsibilities. Insensitivity to family issues and workplace inflexibility are still major impediments to women in academia

    • Changing organisational cultures to reflect the needs of women academics


The above link provides guidance for women looking to return to work after having a child. Organisations can support women by providing them with information about making the return to work decision.


Note that this sort of guidance is important for managers too, so that they understand the issues faced by women after having a child.