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Ask the Expert: How do I Fill in a Gap?

A. It's wonderful that your time away from the workforce hasn't eroded your self-confidence and that you harbor no doubts about the contribution you can make and your inherent value as an employee. You're realistic, too, that despite some inroads in corporate mindset, others may need more convincing, and that, consequently, your resume may have a harder time transcending the slush pile.

Let's start with your resume itself. Whether you are using a chronological or functional order to list your experience (functional being the format traditionally used to minimize gaps), you should address your detour head on. Says outplacement expert Rod Williams at Lee Hecht Harrison, 'At the appropriate point, list 'Homemaker' or 'Sabbatical' with a brief explanation as to what you were doing. Just a couple of lines will do.' Include volunteer work along with looking after small children.

Next, craft your cover letter with the obsessiveness and flair a copywriter might bring to an ad campaign. Check out some books on outstanding writing styles used by novelists and copywriters to write something that will grab a reader's attention and get him or her to consider your interpersonal skills and the continuity of your professional experience. Use this opportunity too to elaborate a bit more as to what you have done while away from the world (again, looking after small children, volunteer work, etc.), what you are looking for now, why you feel you're qualified, and how you would add value to any team.

Why is the cover letter so important? 'In order to make the critical leap of getting beyond being an anonymous resume to being a person in an interview whose human ability is being considered,' says executive coach Maggie Craddock. Unfortunately, says Craddock, a lot of large organizations have set up incredibly bureaucratic resume-screening processes, many times for legal issues around fairness. Nothing against the hugest firms, but you may be more successful applying to small and medium-sized outfits, or start-ups, where the bureaucratic roadblocks to an interview are less daunting.

Always remember that your cover letter and resume will be most successful when targeted at a contact unearthed through your network. Indeed, says executive recruiter Patricia Wieser at Russell Reynolds, 'You need to network like crazy, especially with people you worked with before you were an at home mom. They will be your best links to the working world and can help bridge that gap' between resume and interview.

Now for the interview. 'You now have a better perspective to think outside the box because you were once inside the box,' says Williams. Be prepared to speak about how the time away was beneficial. 'Did you use the time between feedings or while the kids were asleep to read up on industry trends or invest time in learning new skills using online learning courses?' says Williams. 'Speak to how this experience has given you a new set of time management skills. Did you regularly keep in contact with former managers and co-workers? What new perspectives have you gained from being away from the work environment?'

As for bias around the fact that you have kids, recognize that it exists. 'Discrimination claims made by women who have who have taken off long periods of time to raise children-and then asserted that they were treated less favorably than individuals who had not done so-have not fared especially under Federal law,' says employment lawyer Ken Taber at Pillsbury Winthrop. One federal court upheld an employer's deliberate discrimination against workers who had taken off long periods to raise children, saying, 'It is perfectly reasonable to consider as a factor the candidate's prolonged absence from [the workplace]. The law does not prevent employers from considering such things.' That said, depending on where you live, state or local laws may offer some protection. For example, Alaska, Illinois, New Jersey and Washington D.C. expressly prohibit discrimination based on parenthood or family status. Some cities, such as Chicago, Atlanta, and Miami, do too.

The best defense is a good offense. In an interview, have a prepared response to the concerns about the time you will be able to devote to your job. Emphasize childcare you have in place for situations that might interfere with your work-but don't promise what you can't deliver. 'A mother should be very careful not to overstate her commitment to the job just to receive an offer,' cautions Williams. 'There are far too many stories of those who regretted not being clearer about their willingness to forego family time for work time.'

Finally, remember there are things you have learned from being able to keep small children in line that will be invaluable in the business community, where some of the children are not necessarily young. 'One client that I worked with who had come back in a very similar situation distinguished herself in front of her most important peers on a conference call by automatically responding to an unruly client with a candid suggestion,' says Craddock. The comeback launched by the comeback mom? She asked her client whether he thought that was the most polite way to talk in this situation. 'The stunned client has been eating out of her hand ever since,' says Craddock.

Never forget that many of your most important skills come from your basic ability as a human being as well as from up-to-date training on the tactical elements of the market. Highlight these to your advantage and be courageous.

Next week's question: I am currently a junior faculty member in mathematics at prestigious U.S. university, where I work in financial math. I am interested in a career in quantitative strategy on Wall Street. How difficult is it to make the transition from academia to industry? How should I go about it? Except academic achievement, what other things should I highlight on my resume?

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Look out for the Experts' answer to this dilemma and readers' comments on Ask the Expert next week.

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