By | Hema Ravichandar | Strategic HR Advisory, former CHRO Infosys Ltd
We work hard and gender-balance our recruitment almost 50-50 at entry. But as we get to the five-seven years’ experience profile, the gender ratio of women dips so dramatically,” said one diversity-conscious CEO to me.
As companies take stock of their gender diversity initiatives around Women’s Day (8 March), a statistic that will almost certainly engage CEO mindshare is the leaking pipeline of feminine talent. In India this pipeline leaks quite alarmingly, especially as we progress from junior- to middle-management levels—by some estimates, a full 48%. This drop compares poorly not just with the more developed nations, but also among several of our closer South-East Asian neighbours. It is therefore but natural that organizational initiatives for fostering gender diversity aggressively address attrition and try to fix this leaking talent pool.
These reasons become self-evident as we see women who in spite of so many odds—health, menopausal stresses, work-work balancing (yes, both at home and at work), maternal guilt, negotiations with the spouse and even “sacred family time compromising stay-aways”—still manage to retain their sanity and further, thrive and strive at work.
Here’s my list of the top reasons.
This genre loves their work. A young professional, the mother of a seven-month-old who has just returned to work, says, “I love my son, but the high of getting back to work is something else!” It helps that several areas have now opened up for women, giving them a level-playing field with their brawnier counterparts. In fact, in many professions they find their own métier since the job comes almost naturally to them. The adrenalin rush of the intellectual challenge is their raison d’être for staying. Deprive them of their oxygen and see them lose interest, however many “work from home” and flexibility sops come their way.
The but obvious financial dimension
Further down the spectrum but in the same dimension are women who work to augment family incomes. Many moons ago, I remember one of my mother’s friends telling her after her first monthly pay cheque came in, “Rayma, now not just the butter, but I can also buy the jam to go along with the toast, without thinking ‘Should I or shouldn’t I?’” More apt definitely in today’s world, with high EMIs and costly English-medium private schools, where the woman is balancing the family budget. Cause enough to keep them at work.
The self-worth dimension
From the financial to the existential! Almost equally compelling is the self-worth dimension which propels many women to enter the workforce. “It starts with the desire to make a mark, a mark distinct from being a homemaker, however cherished one may be as a wife, a daughter-in-law or a mother,” a lady industry veteran tells me. The need is to step out and make a niche for oneself outside one’s home and hearth. Not for a moment am I decrying those who choose to stay at home and enjoy it, who find their calling in being great life partners and mothers. More power to them. I am talking of those who feel they want something beyond. Who desire to be deemed worthy, as perceived by oneself, in the eyes of family and of society at large.
From presence to progress to power
The ability to wield power in their jobs becomes the greatest motivator for many women to stay and succeed in their careers against many personal odds. Power motivates men too, but the workplace power for a woman is particularly strong because of the incremental positional benefits it gets her in her family circles and in larger social ones as well. “This deep need for power is what keeps my boss in her job against all odds,” said one disappointed aspirant for the same role, to me.
“A ‘break’ from traditional social circles, without a break,” is how one woman professional described it to me. “I had had it with discussions on the next holiday or the best kitty party. I love the camaraderie that I get at work and the ‘intelligent’ conversation is such a godsend.”
Camaraderie yes, but also the “extra something” that one gets at work seems important. The deferential salaam of the watchman, the extra strings your administration team can pull for you when you need some quick holiday bookings, and the access your visiting card gives you into your child’s principal’s office are all great highs. Euphemistically called goodwill equity, this comfort quotient is a big driver in keeping women in their jobs. “Moving out is too much of an effort. I would have to re-establish myself all over again” is a refrain one hears over and over again when women contemplate a job change.
So, diversity officers, by all means have your work from home (though it apparently has lost favour with even Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer now) and flexible policies, so that the stress of rigid norms doesn’t wear employees down; find great organizational sponsors who can create generations of successful women professionals; encourage women to choose their life partners wisely, for they can make or mar a promising career. But remember, these policies, sponsors and career advice are in the final analysis only enablers. The real reasons why women enter and then stay in the workforce are different. And as another Women’s Day rolls by, let us acknowledge those reasons, celebrate them and act on them. In failing to do this, organizations lose key levers for the success of their diversity dreams.
And for those of you beautiful women who choose to pursue your career dreams, here’s one from the irrepressible American singer Lady Gaga. “Some women choose to follow men, and some women choose to follow their dreams. If you’re wondering which way to go, remember that your career will never wake up and tell you that it doesn’t love you any more.”