Are six-year career breaks a good idea?

In a recent interview with the FT, Dame Alison Carnwath, the chairman of Land Securities and the only female chairman in the FTSE 100, called on companies to allow women to take family-friendly career breaks of up to six years.

Confidence. Ability. Drive. All are attributes that can deteriorate during a long career break.

Juggling work and family is not getting easier. Last week, the Family and Childcare Trust hit the headlines with a report that said many parents in Britain were paying more for childcare than their mortgage – the average cost of full-time childcare for two children is £11,700 a year.

Nabs, after receiving more calls than ever around the subject, is launching a Working Parents Programme in April that will consist of workshops and coaching initiatives focusing on parents returning to work.

The industry is moving in the right direction but, as with other sectors, it’s on a learning curve.

Companies that don’t offer a supportive culture will have to step up and change their practices. But perhaps lengthy career breaks would cause more problems than they solve.

Agency head

Lindsay Pattison, chief executive, Maxus UK

"Six years is an awfully long time to keep a role open and won’t work for either a mother or father, or the company. As an industry, I think our specific challenge is making agency culture work for parents by challenging some deeply entrenched perceptions. First, I’d like us to move past the notion that requesting flexible hours is synonymous with a lack of ambition. Second, we need to look at the intricacies of working in an ‘always-on’, hyper-connected industry. We need to respect boundaries and realise that the actual work is what’s important, not the length of hours ‘clocked on’."


Sarah Skinner, partner, Grace Blue

"Working mothers face two key pressure points: time (if they carry on working) and confidence (if they take an extended break). All working mothers have to become far more productive and efficient with their time as it becomes a precious commodity – and being able to manage and use your time more dynamically, such as being decisive and prioritising, is one of the best traits a future leader can have. But if women stop working for too long, they risk losing confidence – and being confident is another key trait among all leaders. That’s why a six-year break, particularly in our fast-moving industry, is too much."

Agency head

Debbie Klein, chief executive, Engine

"Our industry is so fast-paced that to be out of it for six years would really leave you behind. I had my son six years ago and I can’t imagine what it would be like stepping back into things now. Back in 2008, Twitter, Facebook and mobile advertising were in their infancy, native advertising didn’t exist and a tablet was what you took for a headache. How things have changed. If companies in our industry don’t offer flexible working, they will lose great talent, and that’s disruptive. Our work doesn’t have to be done in traditional office hours and there’s no reason why, as an industry, we can’t be open to all staff – regardless of parental status – working flexibly."

Industry body

Zoe Osmond, chief executive, Nabs

"While I applaud Dame Alison Carnwath’s ambition and desire that women should be allowed a career break to manage their families, in reality, this would not work in the rapidly evolving media landscape that communications operate in. Clients move on, new technologies take hold and one’s peers will fill the talent gap created by such absences. I am all in favour of a career gap, but a timely one of no more than a few years is more realistic. At Nabs, we are launching a series of workshops and coaching initiatives focused on parents returning to work. This approach is used to the best advantage when the gap has been shorter than six years."