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Writer Gets LinkedIn To Make Room For Parents Trying To Re-Enter Workforce

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

You probably heard by now or know from your own experience that the coronavirus pandemic has forced millions of women to drop out of the workforce, either because their jobs disappeared or they couldn't manage the demands of keeping households, homeschool and jobs going while much of the world shut down to fight the virus. But now that many people are becoming vaccinated and able and willing to go back to paid work, how to account for that time away?

On Tuesday, the professional networking site LinkedIn said it will begin giving users a new list of ways to identify themselves - as stay-at-home parents or caregivers or self-employed without having to offer much more detail. The site said that is a way to allow people to more accurately reflect their lives and to remove the stigma of career gaps.

LinkedIn users can in part thank Heather Bolen for this. She is a former Starbucks executive who stayed at home with her children for more than a decade. It was her piece published in Medium last month titled "How A Simple Platform Fix Can Help Millions of Women Trying To Reenter The Workforce" which caught the company's attention. And Heather Bolen is with us now to tell us more. Heather Bolen, thanks so much for joining us.

HEATHER BOLEN: Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: So before we get into the letter, I just wondered if you would just tell us a little bit about your background. I know you said in your letter you took about 11 years off from working. And when you decided to jump back in, what was that like?

BOLEN: So I understood that it would be - there would be obstacles and some bias. And those concerns certainly were not unfounded. Several Harvard Business Review studies have found that employers are biased against stay-at-home moms and viewing them as less capable, less reliable, less deserving of a job and even less committed to work.

So as time went by, I'd planned to go back, but the relocations for my husband's work, that timeline continued to get extended. But I was also somewhat confident in the experience I came to the table with. So that's at what point I sat down and, like millions of other job seekers, and - to update my LinkedIn profile.

MARTIN: When you tried to set up your LinkedIn profile, what was it that jumped out to you?

BOLEN: I don't know what I expected, but the inability to call out my resume gap was immediately apparent. I had typed in mom into the blank space of the job title category, and I was surprised and disappointed to find that homemaker was the only option that popped up, which, of course, is a term that was coined in the 1800s and gained popularity in the '50s and comes loaded with an emphasis not just on the stay-at-home mom piece, but also on the stay-at-home wife. It's rather antiquated.

I was also similarly struck by the fact there was a complete lack of prepopulated dropdown options that call out various types of leave, essential leave, such as elderly care leave, maternity leave, sick leave. And that felt like an immediate roadblock. And I - what came with that was feelings of shame and embarrassment for having stepped away from paid work while my kids were at home.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting because I was thinking about this when preparing to have our conversation. I was reminded of a talk that I heard the former secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, give when she was talking about her return to paid work after similarly taking a break in order to stay home with her kids. And when she tried to get back into the field, many of her male colleagues only knew her as the carpool mom, and so they didn't take her expertise seriously enough. But I don't know how - how do you think being able to describe the work differently would address that bias?

BOLEN: Well, for one, I think by just naming it. So, you know, I wrote my article - I didn't write an article to give more tips on how women can frame up their career gap. I wrote an article asking others to recognize that career gap is legitimate and important and essential by acknowledging it. In turn, the normalization of the conversation forces employers to look at ways to create better family leave policies as well as improved work arrangements for flex-time and part-time work.

MARTIN: Here's a question, though. I don't want to put you on the spot, but there are those who might say being able to take 11 years off of paid work is a pretty privileged position to be in, in contrast to people who get laid off or people who just can't make it all work. And I just would like to ask, you know, how do you see that question?

BOLEN: It speaks to the child care crisis that's happening and the adult care crisis that's happening in the country. And certainly, we're at a point where I think the - that women have found - are going to find a voice through these changes on LinkedIn. I think that, to your point, we also need to make sure that such - that those options are available for all sorts of job applications, not just a digital professional online platform.

MARTIN: I do wonder whether the advocacy by women like yourself who had a choice does inform or does at least create opportunity for women who didn't have a choice, who didn't feel that they had a choice, to be less defensive about it, or to not feel that they have to cover up the fact that it just couldn't - it couldn't work, you know, all together.

BOLEN: Since these changes have been made on LinkedIn, I've been flooded with messages, messages from moms all over with their personal stories that - who've been at a loss to describe their resume gaps and have been struggling with whether to conceal it altogether. And I think that outpouring of messages really reveals that these women now feel that they can own their career path, whatever it may be.

MARTIN: That's Heather Bolen. She is a former stay-at-home parent. She's the author of the piece "How A Simple Platform Fix Can Help Millions Of Women Reenter The Workforce." And lo and behold, LinkedIn is making that fix. Heather Bolen, thanks so much for talking to us.

BOLEN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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