How to babyproof your job interview

Preparing for a job interview after spending time at home with your baby can be daunting.
Preparing for a job interview after spending time at home with your baby can be daunting. Photo: Getty Images

Once upon a time, I was a fan of job interviews. That all changed after I'd switched careers, had a baby and decided to spend the first year at home with her.

I anticipated that my qualifications, with the added bonus of a curly-haired baby who talks in Russian gibberish, would land me in the "yes" pile. In every cover letter and at every interview, I brought up my job as a stay-at-home-mum as a sign of commitment - prepared to whip out her picture and my colour-coded Excel spreadsheet of organic purees.

Wrong.

In a Cornell University study, participants were asked to review application materials of identical candidates, the only difference being one was a parent, and the other wasn't.

Mothers received half as many callbacks and a 7 percent lower recommended salary than equally qualified non-mothers. Mothers were also expected to score higher on an exam in order to be considered.

In a New York Times feature, Judith Warner explored the struggles of women re-entering the workforce. Fewer than half of surveyed mothers found full-time employment, earning, on average, 16 percent less than when they had left. Many settled for fewer management responsibilities or a lower title.

After reaching out to career experts and other mothers, I devised several strategies for interviewing after baby.

1. Communicate non-verbally

Non-verbal cues make a stronger first impression than qualifications. For some of us, our wardrobes haven't caught up with our new figures. Even if you are on a budget, invest in quality interview clothes if the old ones don't fit. The worst it can do is boost your self-esteem.

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If you have two left feet and a tendency to over-caffeinate, like I do, make an effort to move more slowly.

At a recent job interview, while getting up to greet the two directors who had walked into the conference room, I tipped my water glass over. Shards of broken glass and ice ruptured across the table, carpet and the directors' feet dramatically and slowly, like something out of The Matrix. The rest of the interview was fabulous, I thought - with on-point, thoughtful questions and answers, even some chuckles.

Whether because I'm a klutz, a parent, or something else, I didn't get the job. But if one is expected to outperform in every way, maybe skip the outperforming when defacing private property.

2. Practice the art of conversation

Outside of mums' activities, stay-at-home parents typically talk to two adults during the day: the mailman and the cashier at Target. The isolation makes it easy to spout off to anyone willing to listen. Go to as many interviews as possible to recalibrate your social skills and to avoid verbal breakthroughs at the wrong time.

Pause after the interviewer has finished speaking; don't respond immediately. Don't go over 30 seconds when summarising your accomplishments.

3. Don't be an apologist for taking care of your child

Just because you haven't attended daily meetings with your hair done in a while, that doesn't mean you watched cartoons in pyjamas all day. Never qualify your time at home as "I wasn't working" or "I just took care of my baby."

You were working.

People differ in opinion on whether to bring up kids at all. If you feel it's important to establish transparency with a potential boss at the outset, remind the interviewer that you've become a multitasking pro, flexible, skilled at management and attuned to the needs of others. Emphasise your stellar qualifications. That you have a solid daycare lined up. And stop.

Asking about "work-life balance" is not recommended off the bat, as it signals a lack of commitment. But look for signs. Do other parents work here? (Drawings, baby photos, references to parents)? Good. Or does everyone appear young, pursuing a childless lifestyle or run around with Nerf guns? Not good.

There isn't much you can do if the employer chooses to perpetuate institutionalised discrimination. Or if she fears paediatric appointments and piano recitals and the fact that, God forbid, you might occasionally need to work remotely or clock in - and out - later once in a while (because clearly Tinder on company time is less of a liability). Make a compelling, dignified case and leave it there. If you perceive disparagement, then the place isn't for you anyway.

4. Recognise ageism for what it is

Taking time off work means your peers will have advanced, yet you will be where you had left off, with a younger set of colleagues. Sadly, unless you are in your early to mid-20s, you may be considered old. "Young people are just smarter," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at a Stanford event in 2007.

A recent college grad might ask you things like "How do you feel being managed by a younger boss?" "Are you sure you are interested in this role? It's pretty junior."

No need to explain your age or your approach to life. Reiterate that doing a good job and getting along with the team matters to you more than age.

At a recent Georgetown Alumni Career Services webinar hosted by career coach Anna Graham Hunter, a woman in her 30s asked how to break into a company that only hires young people. Hunter's advice? Stop trying to break in. Find a company that does hire people in their 30s.

5. Close your employment history gap

After being out of work for more than six months, it's considerably harder to get hired. So fill in that gap on your resume. Add something relevant and truthful, in a freelance or consultant capacity, spanning through the present.

If you volunteered for a parent organisation, say so, using descriptors that would apply to the job. Don't sell yourself short, even if your projects were for a friend or family member. Flaunt your accomplishments.

* Masha Rumer is a communications professional and a new mum. Since writing this post and following her own advice, she has found a job and returned to work. In her free time, she chases her toddler around and runs a blog, The Flying Yenta.

- Washington Post