These are statistics India Inc seldom discusses — around 18 per cent, or close to a fifth, of women leave their jobs every year in India, because of work-life imbalance and family commitments.

That’s not all. According to some studies, almost half of all the women who manage to enter the workforce are out of it by the time they reach mid-career levels. The median age when a woman exits the workforce is between 32-35 years of age, although the majority of the women quit work between 25 and 35 years of age.

The reason? Women in India — and never mind if that particular woman has an IIT degree or an IIM MBA — are, first and foremost, expected to marry and have children. And marriage and kids, they are told, simply do not mix with a career.

Yawning skill-gap

These are astonishing numbers, especially in view of the yawning skill-gap in industry, particularly at the entry and mid levels, where the employability quotient of recent graduates is low.

Enter Avtar I-Win, a social enterprise, which Founder-President Soundarya Rajesh describes as a network of over 26,000 women professionals who want a career which integrates work and life, while leaving enough quality time for both.

“Women who take a break in career often do so for all the ‘right’ reasons,” says Rajesh, “From marriage to children to looking after elders, women are expected to step forward and shoulder the responsibility — even if it means sacrificing their careers.”

Earlier, this ‘break’ usually ended up being permanent. Most employers did not seriously consider women coming back after a long break — often as long as five years or more. And flexi-time or work-from-home options were practically non-existent.

But all that is changing. For one, the nature of work has changed. In increasingly technology-driven workplaces, any device which connects the worker to the network can become the work station. And there is the growing talent shortage, which has made these qualified and experienced professionals attractive to talent scouts, who are tasked with laying the pipeline to alternate talent pools.

Blessing in disguise

But are these women — probably in their early 30’s with breaks of as long as five to eight years behind them, actually keen on a re-entry?

More importantly, are corporates, which are hungry for talent, finding this a sustainable investment option?

If the feedback from corporates and the participants at the ‘Segue Sessions’, organised by AVTAR I-WIN are any indication, then the break is indeed a blessing in disguise for both the career-seeking woman returnee as well as the corporate doing the hiring.

‘Segue’ (pronounced ‘seg-way’, as in the self-propelled new-age mobility vehicle) has an interesting connotation — it refers to the musical interlude between two parts of an opera.

“The Indian woman has many such interludes in her career — as she moves between one role to another. The Segue Sessions are nation-wide skill-building initiatives, which seek to build a bridge between women who wish to segue back into a career and the organisations, which wish to engage them,” says Saundarya.

Organisations like Accenture, Deutsche Bank, GENPACT, HCL, Hindustan Unilever, IBM, IFB, KRAFT Foods, PepsiCo, Naturals, Standard Chartered Group and Vodafone have partnered with AVTAR I-WIN to co-create the workshops that lead to talent transformation of the second career women. “Second career women are at a different life-cycle stage as compared to fresh hires and their engagement drivers are different. Challenges thus abound,” says Saundarya. The Segue Sessions aim to demystify the requirements of this talent pool, while also sending out a strong message from corporates that women are indeed needed in the workplace.

Juggling roles

“Women returning after a break, bring with them a world of prior experience and qualification, they also bring with them an attitude to learn fast,” says R Elango, Chief Human Resources Officer of MPhasis.

Adds Srimathi Shivashankar, Associate Vice-President AVP (Diversity and Sustainability), HCL Technologies, “Women who take break from careers have valid reasons. It is more a career break but certainly not a competency break. Which means that women who return to work do so because of their attitude towards work and seriousness about their careers.”

“Unlike men, whose career decisions are often motivated by aspects such as power, position, prestige and pay, women usually leave only to balance work and life. They constantly segue between various avatars that they take — especially the Indian woman,” says K. Umasanker, Co-Founder of Avtar.

“She is a mother, sister, spouse, daughter, daughter-in-law, professional and career woman. When so many roles jostle for space in the Indian woman’s life, it is but natural that she has to take a lattice approach to career and not a linear one.”

A ‘lattice’ approach to careers means that women weave in and out of the workplace, integrating work and life. This is an emerging career model, which allows women to return to the workplace without being treated as deserters. Statistics show that one of out every five women quit the workplace finding it unsustainable, almost always never to return.

The break is, therefore, ubiquitous. Every family today has at least one woman — either within or in the peripheral relative circle, who has been a great student and a professional, but has taken a break to fulfil responsibilities.

Sustainable jobs

While the last few decades encouraged women to acquire higher educational degrees and enter the workforce in unprecedented numbers, the question of retaining them in the workplace and eventually developing them as leaders was never addressed.

But how many actually want to return? Avtar I-win (the I-win stands for Interim Women Managers Interface Network) estimates that over 1.5 million second women are in the employment market seeking a re-entry.

This has lead to the conception of programs by companies, such as Unilever, GENPACT, Deutsche Bank, GE Capital and IBM, which focus exclusively on bringing back women into the workplace.

Second-time jitters

What has been the experience of such women who have returned?

“We found that in 2008, after we had successfully completed a project that involved providing second career opportunities to over 350 women with an organisation, more than 25 per cent dropped off again. The reason — a double whammy in the form of A) a workplace that was unprepared for this new talent segment and B) the woman herself who was unsure,” says Karthik Ekambaram, AVP – Consulting Services at FLEXI Careers India. Technical skills or functional expertise is never in question.

Women who seek a return usually possess a professional degree, have about five to 10 years of work experience and are ready to re-engage more sustainably. They have invariably fulfilled their family commitments — child bearing and early childhood responsibilities.

“But what the returning woman lacks is confidence and the belief that she can do it — a second time around. Our survey in 2010 on returning women showed that not only the women, but also the workplace needed to be sensitised to this new talent pool,” says Karthik.

Two sides of the coin

Companies are listening. “Women looking to re-enter the organisation after taking a break bring a lot of determination and strong will to pursue careers,” says Nisha Verma of Vodafone, adding, “At times, however, adjustment post the gap — to newer patterns of work, expectations, occasional verbal jibes from male colleagues — can be painful. It is our endeavour to create an environment to welcome smooth re-integration.”

Says HCL’s Shivashankar, “When women re-enter the workforce after a break, certain guidelines pertaining to their re-training and enablement need to be mentioned specifically. This is more in lines of setting expectations with the women as well as the managers who hire them.”

“Women also have to be assertive in terms of their rights and prospects at the workplace,” she continues.

“They would also need to ascertain their unique skills and aptitudes and be clear about their professional goals and expectations. It is also advisable that they find mentors and learn from experience sharing, adapt their style to the needs of the organisation, be forthcoming in terms of learning new skills in order to accept personal and professional challenges.”

And such policies are paying off, for the employers as well. “The company has been able to retain talented workforce and there is less time, energy and resources invested in scouting for new talent,” says Elango.

However, a career break is traumatic in more ways than one.

“Post a break ,the energy dips — due to the non-availability of options and more importantly a mindset issue,” says Saundarya, adding, “This mindset challenge is on both sides of the table — second career women seek the approval of a welcoming workplace and corporates need proof of commitment and continuity, a second time around.”

In the face of India’s skill shortage, for all high-growth companies in practically every sector, the issue of engaging productively with the over 1.5 million second career women becomes not just a choice but a default option.

(This article was published on November 8, 2012)
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