For Lenora Hage — an accomplished performing artist, lawyer and new mom — returning to the workforce after nearly two years away was a greater challenge than she had anticipated.
In 2019, following the birth of her first son, Hage took time off from her career after an eight-year stint in commercial arbitration and mediation in Brazil. In 2021, following a move to Canada, she decided it was time to jump back in. But Hage was faced with new challenges: building a network from scratch, understanding a new business culture and questioning whether law was still the right career for her.
“It was a stressful time — I was doing everything I could to research the market, network and refresh my resume and cover letters,” she says.
Hage decided she needed some guidance. In 2022, she began the Rotman Back to Work program — a three-month course designed for women re-entering the workforce following a prolonged absence.
“I needed to build up my confidence, recognize my value and put myself out there despite not having work experience in Canada,” Hage says.
Hage isn’t alone. Many women choose to take career breaks for a myriad of reasons, including childcare, caring for family members and health challenges. Data shows that women are far more likely than men to give their careers a pause, with a 2021 RBC study showing nearly 100,000 women over the age of 20 have exited the labour market since the start of the pandemic, compared with fewer than 10,000 men.
On average, women in the Back to Work program have been out of the workforce for seven years. The cumulative loss of income during that time — coupled with the pressure to match or exceed previous salaries — makes strategic career planning and strong negotiation skills crucial for women continuing their careers.
“The moment we all started sharing our stories, I just felt so embraced knowing I’m not alone,” says Hage, who joined a group of 23 women from various walks of life and professional backgrounds.
Positioning yourself for a strong return
Hosted by the Initiative for Women in Business, participants of the Back to Work program learn from executives, HR professionals, coaches and mentors to better understand their unique strengths and inch closer to landing fulfilling roles. They take part in group sessions, one-on-one coaching, presentations and networking chats with professionals from the program’s corporate partners: Accenture, TD, EllisDon, Canso and Kuehne+Nagel.
While the program costs CAD$3,950, the Back to Work program is now eligible for financial assistance through the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP). In addition, internationally educated professionals have the option to borrow from Windmill Microlending to finance the program.
At the heart of the program is building confidence and resiliency, addressing head-on the emotional challenges of re-entering the workforce.
“A lack of confidence, along with feelings of guilt and frustration, are common things many women face when re-entering the workforce,” says Professor Beatrix Dart, director of the Initiative for Women in Business and a professor of strategy at Rotman. “There are things we teach in terms of skills — how to have a great LinkedIn profile, preparing your resume, negotiating salaries and benefits — but then there’s this huge psychological side that most women need to overcome.”
Dart, who has led the Back to Work program for 12 years, says a large part of the program is focused on self-discovery and navigating one’s values.
“Your perspectives might have changed, and your life circumstances might be different than before. What's important to you now? We help them to figure it out.”
Director, Initiative for Women in Business
For Tiffany Baggetta, a communications professional with more than 15 years of experience in the not-for-profit sector, taking care of her newborn son prompted her decision to pause her career in 2018.
While aspects of her life had changed since she was at her previous roles — which include leadership positions at UNICEF Canada and World Vision Canada — her longtime passion for advocating for the well-being of children around the world remained strong.
Through the Back to Work program, Baggetta says she gained insight into the kind of leadership role she wanted to pursue next.
“It was an opportunity to dig deep into everything related to our careers and values,” Baggetta says. “The program reinforced a way that I could articulate my career goals and ambitions moving forward, and what kind of leader I wanted to be.”
Baggetta recently landed a new role with Save the Children Canada as its head of communications, media and public relations while going through the program.
For Hage, the program helped her to realize how a role in sustainability would better align with her values than her previous job. Just three months into the program, she landed a full-time customer success role at EcoVadis, the world’s largest and most trusted provider of business sustainability ratings.
“The program helped me to see my value as a professional,” Hage says, noting the sessions on resume building, negotiation and career goal setting were particularly helpful as she entered a new industry.
“I can't wait to see what the future holds for me in this new career — the sky is the limit.”