(Illustration by Dina Mariani/iStock by Getty Images)

Two years ago, a gap on your resume might earn you a sidelong look. That seemingly empty space without a conventional job was often a point of discomfort for applicants and suspicion among prospective employers: Was this person doing anything relevant with their time away from the grind?

After a pandemic and the child-care crisis that came with it, the answers to that question are being treated with more open minds. Thankfully, the stigma of the resume gap may be fading. “Compassion is definitely more felt because of Covid,” said John Gulnac, VP of direct hiring and search at the staffing firm Adecco. “I think so many people have relatable experiences and hardships at home or work-life balance situations that they needed accommodations for. I do think tolerance and compassion are higher than they’ve been in the past, but the demand is also no small factor here,” he told From Day One.

Indeed, the combination of the pandemic and the worker shortage in many industries has changed a lot about the way job candidates are evaluated. Old barriers to employment are falling away, possibly for good. If employers are increasingly willing to overlook resume gaps, the change could have a tremendous effect on the careers of women, who are more likely than men are to have a resume gap due to caregiving responsibilities—pandemic or no pandemic.

The effects of Covid, particularly school closings and loss of child care, set back women’s representation in the workforce significantly, opening up millions of resume gaps. It was primarily women who left paid work to handle caregiving responsibilities at home. In 2020, women with children under the age of 10 were the segment mostly likely to leave the workforce, according to research by McKinsey & Company.

Two years later, far more women than men still remain out of the workforce. “Men have now recouped all their labor force losses since February 2020,” said a report by the National Women’s Law Center, “while over one million fewer women were in the labor force in January 2022 as compared to February 2020.”

Job Searching With a Resume Gap

Resume gaps have traditionally made it hard for job seekers to get a chance to make their pitch. Applicants with a gap on their resume are 45% less likely to get job interviews than are those without a gap; the longer the gap, the more difficult it becomes to get a job.

Being a caregiver can make job searching with a career gap particularly hard. Maria Healey, who now works in content marketing in the internet-gaming industry, has two gaps on her resume: She left in 2012 to take care of her son for five years, and in 2021 was laid off from her copywriting job at a data-analytics company.

Healey believes that the first gap, taken for caregiving responsibilities, is what made finding work so difficult in 2017. While applying for jobs in San Diego, she was forthright about her time being a parent, but “none of that was taken well,” she recalled.

Healey said job searching was markedly different in 2021 than it was in 2017–and that having a gap was more accepted. “I just feel like Covid has just changed everything. I think that people realize it’s almost a stupid question to ask why there’s a resume gap.”

Maria Healey, who works in content marketing, had two gaps in her resume  (Photo courtesy of Maria Healey)

Still, she suspects the resume gap problem will never completely disappear for mothers, and fears what another gap might mean for her career prospects. “If I were to have another child, how would I do it? I’m really turned off by staying home for another five years. That really scared me. I don’t know that I could do that again, career wise.”

Women often feel that a resume gap due to caregiving isn’t a hindrance when they’re able to “smooth it over,” as Prabha Kannan put it, with work not associated with being a caregiver.

Kannan, who is a California-based writer, stepped away from the paid workforce for seven years to care for her two children. When she returned in 2017, as a writer for Apple’s voice assistant Siri, her resume gap wasn’t a terrible problem, she thinks, because she could show part-time consulting work. “I think it’s because I was able to sort of smooth over my resume gap so it doesn’t appear as a seven-year period where I wasn’t working. It just appears as a period of time where I was working at a lighter level.”

Working mothers worry about appearances because they know what many of their colleagues are thinking about them: 41% of workers view working mothers as less devoted to their work, and 38% of workers “judge them” for needing a flexible schedule, according to a 2019 study by child-care provider Bright Horizons.

When mothers reentering the paid workforce are asked by an employer to provide a reason for their resume gap, their answer can prove problematic. “Explaining that gap could require disclosing that she is a mother, which would invite stereotyping and discrimination,” said Elizabeth Gedmark, VP at the caregiver-advocacy group A Better Balance, in a recent webinar on equity for workers with employment gaps. “The person who is on the other end of the job interview may deem that person less devoted of an employee simply because they have caregiving responsibilities, which is absolutely discrimination.”

The Growing Influence of Compassion and Inclusion

Since the impact of the pandemic on work lives was so sweeping, it was a relatable thing for employers to consider in evaluating resume gaps. When Maria Healey was looking for work after her second career gap in 2021, she was told by recruiters to use Covid as an explanation for the six-month gap on her resume, even though the pandemic had nothing to do with her being laid off. “Recruiters were telling me, ‘If you get asked about the gap, everybody can use Covid as an excuse right now. Always do that. Don’t say you were laid off. Just say Covid,’” Healey said.

While the pandemic effect may be fading, the emphasis during the past two years on the need for workplace compassion as well as inclusion may be inspiring employers now focus more on capabilities than on professional or educational history. Many companies show more willingness to consider candidates without four-year college degrees, for example, and many have made commitments to hire more people who were formerly incarcerated.

If acceptance of resume gaps is to last, the motivation must be a change in thinking, not just the need to fill jobs quickly, said Gulnac. He suspects renewed interest in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and the growing understanding of parental duties have made progress toward a greater understanding that not all promising resumes look alike. “The pandemic has opened people up to have a little more humanity when it comes to small gaps or periods of time where people had to change direction,” Gulnac said. “The need for workers is forcing employers to change behaviors, but I do think the compassion piece is giving people a little bit more flexibility.”

Ebony Travis Tichenor, a veteran of the DEI field and practice, believes openness to career gaps reflects a more permanent change. “Companies are being a little bit more forgiving because it comes down to creating more equitable opportunities and being more inclusive, to opening our minds, to stop judging someone by the cover of how they look or what their initial resume looks like,” she said. “Get to know the person and see what skills are transferable, see what they can bring to the table.”

Gulnac too, sees a deeper change at work here, and, as a parent himself, he’s hopeful. “There’s a fear that people will just kind of return [to the old normal] when the labor market changes, but I think there’s too much governing dynamics with the changing in the workforce,” he said. “I hope this is just the beginning of several other changes that take place when we look at how we’re evaluating the right fit for an organization.”

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a freelance reporter based in Richmond, Va., who writes about workplace culture and policies, hiring, DEI, and issues faced by women. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Fast Company, and Food Technology, among others, and has been syndicated by MSN and The Motley Fool.