Re-introducing skilled mothers back into the workplace

An interview with Assunta Cicalese, VP of Compensation and Workforce Analytics, EMEA Lead at Morgan Stanley

Recruiting in reward and analytics can be challenging due to the lack of available candidates. Firms like Morgan Stanley who recognise this gap in the market and constantly strive to recruit top talent, have implemented schemes to re-introduce skilled mothers back in to the workplace. We recently facilitated the move of Assunta Cicalese, who had taken several years out to become a full-time mother. Assunta benefitted from the return to work programme that Morgan Stanley operates, and we thought it would be useful to share her experiences as she acclimatises to her new career.

How have you settled in at Morgan Stanley?

I have settled in really well, thank you. Getting the new routine in place, especially with a daughter in school, has been a challenge, however as time moves on I feel increasingly settled both professionally and on a personal level.

You joined at a notoriously busy time – what has your workload been like and what tasks/projects have you been involved in?

Indeed, I joined two weeks prior to communication day, which is the busiest time of the year for any compensation and analytics team. I knew what to expect and just went with the flow. Now that things are back to normal I am getting involved in a number of projects which provide opportunities to collaborate with colleagues across all HR areas and develop new skills and knowledge which challenge my edge. The work is challenging but the workload is not overwhelming.

Having worked as Head of EMEA Analytics for another household US bank in your previous role, what have been the main differences between the two organisations?

Actually I was more struck by the similarities than the differences, both in terms of culture and organisational structure. Perhaps it is down to the way I interpret the world around me, I tend to overemphasise what is familiar and that has helped me settle in faster. In fact sometimes I have the feeling that I have never left.

You took a career-gap to raise a young family. Did you have any concerns at the time of doing so and was your plan always to return to work in the same capacity?

Understandably I was worried about my future employability. I didn’t know what happened to women who had taken a career break to become full-time carers because no one was talking about it at that time. We had a young baby and my husband had just accepted a role at the British Embassy in Paris. Any concerns I had were quickly eased by the excitement of being able to enjoy the first years of my child’s life to the full and moving to Paris, which is a great city.

I like to keep my options open, see what life throws at me, and so far this approach has paid off. I knew that I would go back to work at some point in my life but I didn’t have a plan of what, where and when that would be.

Did you enrol in any subscriptions or courses whilst out of work, and if so, did you find them useful?

When my daughter started school I found myself with more time and started to think about my own ambitions again. I felt the need to challenge myself intellectually and decided to apply for a Masters in Psychology, a subject that has always interested me and which had the potential to open new career avenues in the future. Having been accepted on the course, I found it extremely useful as it covered every branch of psychology and offered the opportunity to acquire new knowledge while at the same time brush up old skills such as statistics, which have potential practical applications within my current role. Additionally, I believe that having this qualification made my CV stand out. It showed that I am not afraid to challenge myself and that I am capable of driving my own personal development. These are qualities that employers always look for in potential candidates.

Why did you decide to return to work?

As my daughter grew older, my role as a mother evolved . The few hours she has after school are filled with activities and my duties involved mainly carting her around from one place to the next. I decided that it was time to re-establish my professional identity and slowly rebuild my career. I also felt that I owed this to my daughter. I am her most important female role model and I didn’t want her to grow up with the belief that having a career is something that only dads can do.

What concerns did you have around returning to the workplace?

My main concerns revolved around my ability to juggle work and family life. Successful women are frequently portrayed as super-humans capable of juggling career and family seamlessly. I always wondered how someone ‘normal’, like me, would cope with a demanding full-time job and a family. From my experience so far I would say it is possible for women to have a career and a family as long as you have a good support network around you. I have a supporting husband and a good au pair, failing that, Morgan Stanley offers all employees an emergency childcare service, and the ability to work flexibly.

Why were you interested in Morgan Stanley as an employer?

I had previously worked for top tier investment banks and I felt instinctively comfortable with that sort of organisation.

Most importantly though, I was impressed by Morgan Stanley’s efforts to bring back women like me to the workplace through their Return To Work program. I like the idea that they are focusing on the value that experienced women can add and that they are prepared to provide the necessary support to make a successful return to work possible.

What was the time frame from your initial search to being offered the role at Morgan Stanley?

Just under three months. I was lucky as Morgan Stanley had just started recruiting for this role when I started looking.

How have the firm supported you in returning to the workplace after several years out, and what programmes do they run to encourage people to interview and join the firm?

There is of course formal training, however what I find most valuable is the ongoing support I receive from my manager, my team and individuals outside of my immediate team.

As mentioned before, the firm also run a return to work programme to encourage people to interview and join the organisation.

How has working culture changed since you left your previous role and what measures have you taken to quickly adapt?

I think that the working culture has changed for the better. There is a lot more flexibility in the way people work at Morgan Stanley, and a lot more emphasis on work-life balance. For example you are immediately set up to work from home and that is immensely valuable when you are juggling work and family needs. Adapting was easier than I thought.

Did you have any difficulty grasping new systems and did you have to re-teach yourself how to use Microsoft packages like Excel, Powerpoint and Access again?

Luckily I had used the newest versions of Microsoft Excel, Powerpoint and Access during my master degree. Hence I had already reviewed those and was aware of the new functionalities.

What have been the main challenges since returning to work on a professional and personal level?

On a professional level, one of the main challenges is overcoming the tendency to put myself under pressure, to try and prove myself in the shortest time. Often I need to remind myself that it is ok to reach out for help and support when needed. I am still working on this.

Also managing my time effectively has been a challenge, especially the desire to spend quality time with my family. I feel my weekends are more precious than before.

What advice would you give people who are considering returning to the workplace?

If you are considering returning to the workplace, make sure that you are doing it at the right time for yourself and your family. Carefully consider all the factors which may impact your ability to go back to work and how you can ease the transition for yourself and your family. Your support network at home will have to be fully engaged in your plan. Once you have made your decision, don’t hold back. Review your CV and brush up your interviewing skills; get in touch with your network of old colleagues, business associates and recruiters.

After contacting Frazer Jones, I was pleasantly surprised how positive they were about my chances of returning to work. Understandably I was nervous and had many doubts about my ability to be considered as a candidate, but they were incredibly supportive and put all my doubts at rest. The consultants were knowledgeable about recent developments within the industry and confident that my career gap would have little effect on my chances to get employed. I really appreciated their consultative approach throughout all stages of the recruitment process.

What advice would you give employers on assisting return to work mothers to make the active choice to re-enter the workplace?

Mothers who want to re-enter the workplace after a career break often need to rebuild their confidence and be made aware that their skills and experience are still valuable assets. It is also important for employers to emphasise the type of support they are prepared to give in order to make the transition back to work possible. For example offering the ability to work flexibly and generally encouraging a culture which acknowledges that work and family life don’t necessarily have to be in conflict with each other.