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Guest AuthorHema Ravichandar

Welcome back the women

Source | Hema Ravichandar (The Mint)

Plug the leaking talent pipeline by encouraging women to return to the workforce and making their re-entry as smooth as possible

“Marriage, maternity and mobility are three course-changers in a woman’s career,” a human resource (HR) professional recently pointed out to me. All three of them played a key part in my young friend’s life.

Graduating with honours in her MBA, she landed a plum job in a multinational company (MNC). A couple of years into a successful career, two of the course-changers came calling: Wedding bells chimed and the “We’re Moving” card flashed. She responded happily and moved to West Asia with her chartered accountant husband, finding an MNC there that offered her a role in an exciting post-merger integration initiative. Along came the stork, the third course-changer. She put her career on hold and plunged delightedly into motherhood. About then, she moved to Ahmedabad with her husband. As a new mother, she chose to pick up a part-time role as a research associate at a Well-Known Institute of Management in Western India (WIMWI will resonate with some). Three years later, the family moved again, this time to their original home base.

Though it had been five years since she had left a flourishing full-time career, she was ready to re-enter the corporate world. She opted for freelance and part-time work for the first two years. “Just to get into the groove and the discipline of working outside home,” she explained. Last year, she plunged back into a “nine-to-fiver”, switching to cruise mode on her professional journey.

Not everyone is as successful as this professional when it comes to getting realigned to their career path. Statistics tell a stark story of the leaking talent pipeline for women in India. While the gender ratio for corporate India is a healthy 29% at junior management levels, it drops to a wobbly 15% by middle management and an anaemic 9% in the upper echelons of management, according to the “Gender Diversity Benchmark For Asia 2011”, a research report published by the not-for-profit organization, Community Business, based in Hong Kong.

There is a double dip; the first for marriage, and maternity, and the second for a host of other reasons,
Working Motherspredominant among them parental care and a sense of professional ennui—a case of been there, done that, especially applicable to those who perceive themselves to be financially secure. Such exits are a reality, but it’s very possible today to attract women back from career breaks. Whether re-entry is successful or not, however, depends as much on the re-entrants as on the organizations receiving them. Here are some learnings from the success stories.

  • Even while on a sabbatical, remain au courant (fully informed) with the developments in your professional field—talk to people in the field, read articles or take a refresher course. Freelance assignments, even pro bono ones as volunteers, are great ways of staying relevant. These will help you boost your self-belief and won’t let you undervalue yourself when the job search starts.
  • Once you have decided it’s time to return to an active working career, reconnect with your professional self. Update your e-profile, pass the word around, especially to former colleagues, and step up the attendance at job search opportunities, including special talent-return workshops. “Nothing like joining your old organization. It’s a great head-start to be back with colleagues who remember your earlier competent self,” said a successful re-entrant.
  •  Develop a reliable filial ecosystem before taking the plunge. Enlist your parents, in-laws, close relatives and friends, domestic help and, of course, the husband and offspring. In enlightened self-interest, remember that there is no better career re-launcher pad than a strong support framework.
  •  Learn to let go…of the obsessive compulsive desire to run a perfect home. Identify those non-negotiable priorities; areas where you feel you cannot compromise, like the children’s homework perhaps. For other important tasks, enlist support, train and then trust the person to do a good job. Remember, the sky won’t fall if that cupboard groaning to be cleaned is left to its own devices for one more week.
  •  Work on your ability to compartmentalize. It will help you keep home at home and work at work when D-Day arrives.
  •  As Immersion Day approaches, be prepared for butterflies in your stomach and guilt-pangs in your heart. Those fat little teardrops streaming down chubby cheeks when you leave for work can melt the most stoic of maternal re-entrants. Live with it. Remember, if that is what you really want, your offspring will have a more fulfilled, more complete momma when you are back with them. For many, like our young protagonist, a soft re-entry in the form of an initial part-time job is helpful.
  • Of course, not everyone is a returning young mother. There are those coming back   from a sabbatical for elder care or the “liberated at 50” variety, once the birds have flown the nest. But butterflies remain a reality for this demographic too.
  • Don’t panic if the first full-time job you take is just not your cup of tea. In your eagerness to hit the road running, you may have settled for something which bores you silly or accepted an offer where you got a raw deal in compensation and positional fitting. Be bold enough to quit, but it is wiser to have another job in hand before the heroics.

The other side

Resuming a career successfully also needs organizational help.

A culture that embraces returnees, strong endorsement by leaders for well-considered hiatuses and a careful match of these new recruits with empathetic superiors are all great ways of showing support. Like all new entrants, re-entrants too have their concerns; for example, reporting to a former peer or a perceived junior. Address them promptly.

For the initial phase, define roles for them which have flexibility built in. Many organizations today have formal returnship programmes offering candidates opportunities to work on live business projects with flexible schedules. They could come in as consultants, or in a variant as interns for specified periods. This gives the organization the opportunity to assess their skills and train them. Those who are ready for full-time jobs are absorbed. The absorption rates seem high, especially if the initial match is done carefully.

Go out of the way to make the incumbent feel part of a team rather than an individual contributor. Peer camaraderie is a key reason candidates return to the workplace. In addition, buddies, mentors, counsellors where appropriate, and those who have walked the re-entrant path all help the person settle.

The reasons why women take a career break are many. While it brings fulfilment of a different kind, it also poses challenges—an imbalance in spousal relationships, erosion of confidence, financial dependence, and the challenges of re-entry. As we celebrate another International Women’s Day, let’s raise a toast to all those brave women who are planning their re-entry and make the journey a little easier for them.

Remember, dear re-entrant, that you are the same capable person you were before your break—just a little out of practice. But wiser beyond years!

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Hema RaviHema Ravichandar is a strategic Human Resources Consultant and a HR Thought Leader. She is  a renowned Leadership Coach and serves as an independent director and an advisory board member for several organizations. She was formerly the global head of HR for Infosys Ltd.

First published in The Mint. 

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