Adriana Rivera hadn’t planned to take a 14-year career break, but “… the best laid plans …,” as the saying goes. When she decided to re-enter the workforce, her biggest worry wasn’t that she lacked the technical chops to succeed, but how her lengthy career break would be perceived by potential employers.
“When I was looking to come back, I felt really good about my skills. But I knew that the bias against working moms, or women who take a break to raise kids, was going to be an obstacle,” Rivera says. “I was confident I could do the work; about eight or nine years into my break I’d done a technical internship. But when I applied to jobs, I either wasn’t hearing anything back at all, or they’d tell me I needed ‘up-to-date’ skills. That really tanked my confidence,” she says.
Rivera persevered, eventually applying to and receiving a Facebook-backed scholarship to Hackbright Academy, a coding bootcamp for women, to learn Python. That additional experience opened the floodgates, Rivera says, and that’s when the tables turned and companies started calling her. But then another unexpected obstacle presented itself.
“The first few interviews I did were … not good,” Rivera chuckles. “I had been out of the game for a while, and I was so nervous that I froze. After that experience, I realized that having the skills wasn’t enough and I needed to figure out how to present them in a better light to get past people’s perceptions.”
Overcoming unconscious bias against working parents
Rivera already had the foundational computer science skills necessary to succeed. She knew how to identify a problem, break it down into smaller chunks, and address those. Her experience both in previous roles and as a mom proved that she had the basics down — but she needed a way to overcome the unconscious bias many hiring managers and recruiters have against working parents, says Vivek Ravisankar, co-founder and CEO of HackerRank. Rivera had used HackerRank in a few of her previous interviews, pitting her coding skills against others on the platform to overcome her nervousness and give potential employers an objective benchmark against which to judge her capabilities.
“This bias against moms, especially those who’ve taken a career break to raise children, is a huge problem, and it’s so hard to overcome that,” Ravisankar says. “You need to have solid problem-solving and computational skills, which she absolutely did, and she needed to have adapatability to new languages, technologies and platforms — she also had that. So, when she started practicing and taking the coding challenges on HackerRank, that gave her the extra edge to overcome her nerves and really shine.”
It also helped that Summer Husband, senior director of data science at Randstad Sourceright, was involved in the recruiting, screening, and hiring process. Husband, a mother of four herself, had no preconceived notions about “working moms” and liked what she saw of Rivera’s resume, experience, and drive to re-enter the workforce, regardless of her lengthy career break.
“Her resume caught my eye — she had the skills we were looking for and the background and experience. The only ‘red flag’ was that break,” Husband says. “We had a few other applicants for the role who hadn’t taken that break, so from that perspective, their resumes did look stronger. But I’m a working mom myself, and I work every day with women who’ve taken breaks and they are just as competent — so, we put together an assessment in concert with HackerRank, and Adriana just blew everyone else out of the water; she’s that good!”
As a data scientist, Husband knew part of her role was to call into the question the “conventional wisdom” about women who take breaks from the workforce.
“We’re data scientists; we’re supposed to be challenging assumptions. This is how we’re supposed to be thinking. If someone says time out [of the workforce] is a disqualifying factor, then we either need to have the data and the evidence to prove or disprove that assertion, and the data just doesn’t back that up,” she says.
The bottom line is that it’s hard enough to find good technical talent; eliminating potential superstars because they’ve taken a career break is, to be blunt, ludicrous. Skills and a candidate’s ability to adapt to the fast-changing needs of the tech industry are what should really matter, Ravisankar says.
This Mother’s Day, it’s more important than ever to think about how to overcome the unconscious (and the overt) biases against women and working moms, for the benefit of society as a whole.