How to Get Professional Attire Just Right

How to Get Professional Attire Just Right

For women, professional dress is often a topic that causes a lot of confusion.   For our Back to Business Women’s Conference, we always suggest that attendees dress as if you were going to an interview – use it as a practice run so that when you get that interview you aren’t suiting up for the first time in a long time.  Our motto is: keep it simple and err on the conservative side.


Professional Business Attire

Here are a few suggestions for what constitutes appropriate business attire –

  • You can’t go wrong with a black suit and a light-colored blouse.  Both pantsuits and skirts are fine, just make sure the skirt is not too short.  A skirt that ends at your knee looks both stylish and professional.  You shouldn’t have to spend a lot of money for a basic black suit.
  • A pair of solid-colored pants or a skirt with a blouse works well also.  Avoid loud patterns and low-cut necklines. If you’re not going to be wearing a suit to work once you get that job, don’t invest in a suit now. Instead, go with a nice-looking pair of dark pants or a skirt and blouse that fit well.  Go for tailored pants, avoid both tight-fitting and flowing styles.
    • Everything should be clean and well-pressed.
    • Keep the jewelry simple.
    • Much has been written about the impression that shoes make during job interviews – they don’t have to be fancy, but they do need to look polished, not worn.
  • Avoid trendy looks and go for more of a classic style.  You don’t have to be boring, but a well-tailored, professional look says a lot of positive things about you before you even open your mouth to wow a potential employer.  First impressions count for a lot, so make a great one!


Business Casual Attire

And here’s a word about “business casual” because this is a phrase that often leaves people wondering what exactly they should wear:

Business casual should be more business and less casual!  My advice is that while a full suit is not required, you should wear either a skirt or suit pants and a blouse.   You’ll still want to make a businesslike impression.


Now go put your best look forward and make a great first impression!

How Do I Get Started?

How Do I Get Started?

How do I get started?


I get this question a lot from women who want to go back to work. Some of them are unsure of how to get started because they’re planning to return to a career that’s different from the one they left. Some just don’t know yet what kind of work they want to do. Others know, but need a big dose of encouragement before taking the first step.


If encouragement is what you need, you’re not alone. This is a big transition we’re talking about and you’re going to need a healthy dose of self-confidence to pull this off. But don’t worry, because you’ve got that. You may need to remind yourself occasionally, but you’ve got it and I believe in you. So, let’s get started.


To get started, we’re going to make a plan. And write it down.


I’ve already started this for you – it’s called the Back to Business Return to Work Checklist.


It’s long, I know. So let me give you just one thing to work on today: Think about what you want to do for work.


Think big. Don’t limit yourself to traditional occupations. The world is a big place and people make a living doing all kinds of things.


And after you think about each of these things, take the time to write them down. Do it. The difference between thinking about something and writing it down is often the difference between getting something done or not getting it done. Let’s get this done!


Here are some things to consider (and then write down):


  • What are the accomplishments that make you most proud when you look back on your life? Don’t limit yourself to accomplishments made while at work. I know you’ve accomplished a lot, so give yourself credit for everything you’ve done. This is no time to be modest. You’re awesome and we all know it. Now, what are your biggest accomplishments?
  • What skills and strengths do you possess that could be clues to finding work in a field that you will enjoy? Put another way –  where are your natural talents? Think seriously about what these are and let’s find a way to get you using these on a regular basis in a job you’ll love. Ask a friend if you need help answering this. Others often see things in us that we don’t recognize in ourselves.
  • Think about your motivation for returning to work.  Is it financial? Do you miss using your adult brain and interacting with people your own age? Do you have time on your hands now that your kids are getting older that you want to do something meaningful with? Understanding your motivation will help you determine if that job offer that comes your way is the right one for you.
  • And finally, let go of the idea that you have to be pursuing your passion.  Grab hold instead of the idea that you will find what you love, get good at it, and develop a passion through hard work and positive feedback. It can be paralyzing to think that you have to know what your passion is before you can get started looking for a job.  I think the passion part kicks in once you’ve found the right thing and realize that you’re really good at it  – not before you start looking.


So let’s get started….

Returning to Work After a Career Break Webinar Replay

Returning to Work After a Career Break Webinar Replay

Whether you’re ready to go back to work after taking time off or just thinking about it, my Returning to Work After a Career Break Webinar will be helpful.  It’s full of the professional advice that I use in my position as Senior Associate Director, Career & Leadership at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School but geared toward women returning to work.  Sign-up to receive the Webinar Replay that you can watch at your convenience — it’s about 30 minutes — and the accompanying Worksheet, and return to work the right way.

Returning to Work Webinar Replay

I'll send an email directly to you with a link to this webinar replay that you can watch at your convenience as well as the worksheet.

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Should You Take Just Any Old Job or Hold Out for the Right One?

Should You Take Just Any Old Job or Hold Out for the Right One?

I want to address an age-old question asked by women contemplating a professional comeback:

Should I take just any old job or should I hold out for the right one?  

This is a question I hear a lot and it’s a question that I asked myself often as I looked for a job after being out of the full-time workforce for many years.  Here’s the easy answer: It depends.

The answer to this question depends entirely on what is motivating you to go back to work. Here’s my point: If you need to start earning income for you or your families’ survival now, then you should take the best job you can find quickly. By “best” I mean highest paying. Life is expensive, kids are expensive and it takes money to survive.  Pure and simple. Divorce often forces women back into the workforce, or your spouse might have been laid off. Whatever the situation, if quickly earning income has become your primary motivation, then find a job and bloom where you’ve been planted. You don’t have to stay there forever but my personal rule of thumb is that you do have to do your best while you’re there.  If you sense that you’re just passing through, work diligently so that when you leave you’ll have a great recommendation and can feel good about the work you did.

While the need for money motivates many women to return to work quickly, others find that their timing isn’t quite so urgent. To you, I say – lucky you! You have the luxury of doing the 3 steps of Reflect, Research and Activate that I think are so important to a successful job search.  The Reflection step is of critical importance in a job search because this is the step where you think deeply about your skills, your past experiences and your current interests and add them all up to set a course for your future.

I want a career break to become a very normal part of a person’s career (both women and men) and for employers to view these not as breaks from real work, but as opportunities to develop more deeply as people, as parents, as travelers or as caregivers of aging parents.  Your ability to reflect on what you’ve learned and how you’ve grown during your career break is a key part of finding direction for your job search.  And setting off on a journey with a destination in mind is going to get you there faster than if you are just wandering through the job search process, applying to something different every day.

If you are motivated to return to work by a desire to re-engage your professional self, to grow as a person in a professional capacity, to put your valuable skills to work and to earn a good income while doing so, then you have the luxury to look until you (a) find the right job or (b) find a job that offers a trade-off that you are comfortable taking. Every decision we make is a trade-off between things that are important to us.  If your job search is starting to feel like it’s taking a long time, and you’re considering taking the next job that comes along, here are a few things you can consider:


  • Will this job keep me moving forward? Will I learn here? Will I meet people that will grow my professional network? Will I feel good about the work I’m doing?


  • Can I think of this job as a stepping stone? Will it get me closer to where I’d like to be professionally?


If you can answer “yes” to any of those questions, then maybe it’s time to take the job.

The second part of this question is –

Do I have to take a job making less money or with a lower title than I held before I took a career break?

My guidance is that I want you aim high, but you must understand that the burden of proving your value to an employer rests with you and only you.  How can you prove that you’re worthy of your previous salary and title?

  • By demonstrating that you’ve spent your career break learning and keeping your skills fresh
  • By taking courses to refresh your job skills
  • By becoming active (and being known) in a professional association relevant to your field
  • By maintaining a network of influential people in your field

Then develop your personal brand image to illustrate your value.


One final thought: When I was job searching, I realized early on that my next job was going to come from someone who knew me personally and not from a resume that I blindly sent out over the Internet.  And this belief changed my job search activities from sitting behind my computer sending out resumes to instead viewing every opportunity to talk to someone as a chance to get one step closer to finding the right job.  And, guess what?  It worked.

Take Charge of Telling Your Story: Positioning is Important!

Take Charge of Telling Your Story: Positioning is Important!

You’ve got the power!

You have the power to tell your story in your own words every time you meet someone new, write a cover letter or go for a job interview. Don’t give away that power!  It’s called positioning and if you don’t position yourself a certain way, others will position you where they think you belong. Positioning is so important that it’s one of the famed 4 P’s of marketing. Isn’t marketing yourself successfully what job searching is all about?

As a job seeker with a gap in your work history, you are an unconventional candidate.  A recruiter will look at your resume and wonder “What was she doing during the years that she wasn’t working?”  You don’t want a recruiter to wonder about you and here’s why:

Why You Must Tell Your Own Story

I have a recruiter friend who has looked at a resume with a gap in the presence of other recruiters. When there is no explanation for the gap, the recruiters discuss possible reasons why the candidate has a work gap and eventually settle on a reason that seems plausible to them.  Then they use this made-up information to justify offering the candidate a lower salary since the candidate appears out of work and probably won’t negotiate. Sound wrong?  You bet!  But it happens, and this is why you must clearly position yourself as a viable job candidate with relevant skills and experience and no mystery.  

How to take charge of your personal positioning:

#1 Know what you gained from your career sabbatical

Everyone knows it’s not easy raising children or caring for elderly parents, but it’s up to you to articulate why you are a better job candidate than the next person.  Did you learn a new skill, manage people or projects through your church or your children’s school, do volunteer work or gain a new perspective on work and life? Consider your career break as one chapter in the long book of your career and practice speaking about your break and what you gained from it with confidence. Work this right into your elevator pitch.

#2: Have a compelling story about a recent skill upgrade that you pursued

Determine which skills are most valued in the line of work you want to get into, and be sure you not only possess them but can speak to how you recently updated them.   Being able to say something like “I just took a course in data analytics at Wake Tech” or “I made a commitment to spend 5 hours a week on online coursework in Project Management skills” can make a powerful impression and position you as a continuous learner using your career break to prepare yourself for your next step. Be sure your recent coursework and skill upgrades are included on your LinkedIn profile.

#3: Make sure your resume isn’t full of holes

Write a strong Summary or Objective at the top of the resume that presents you as a professional and takes the mystery out of any significant work gaps. Consider attending the Back to Business Women’s Conference on February 21, 2020 in Research Triangle Park, NC where we’ll have a resume-writing workshop. Or seek 1-on-1 help from a professional resume expert like Mir Garvey of RTP Resumes. 

Take Charge!

Take charge of your professional reputation and personal brand.  If you aren’t proactive about telling your story, you are missing out on the opportunity to market yourself as a great job candidate.  I encourage you to think about what you want your professional identity to look like and to make sure that your resume, cover letters, LinkedIn profile and networking efforts are all working together to reinforce this identity. Have a cohesive story, own it and tell it with confidence.

Check out more articles with specific job-hunting tips for women returning to work after a career break at