I still get asked, ‘How can [women] combine motherhood and career?’”, feminist author Gloria Steinem told Stanford University’s student newspaper last year. “I tell them, ‘Until men are asking that same question, you can’t.’”
”[T]he women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich, or self-employed.” A sub-heading in Anne Marie Slaughter’s much-read Atlantic magazine piece, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.”
In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg describes what a tough time she had while pregnant with her first child. She gained 70 pounds, her feet swelled two shoe sizes, and she vomited every day for nine months. I read this and I thought immediately, she gets it.
Pregnancy is a life-changing experience. It can also turn out to be life threatening for a few. Balancing a career with something so critical is not child’s play.
A survey of 1,000 women working in the capital, Delhi, and its neighbouring areas found that only 18-34 percent of married women continued working after having a child. Childbirth and a young family sometimes affect the growth curve of women’s careers. Not everyone can be a Marissa Mayer and return to work two weeks after having a child. Some organisations are willing to factor in that reality.
Sheetal Arora, 36, tried hard to understand why so many mothers were questioning how she was working from home for a company that she had co-founded in the UK. After all, it was not rocket science she felt. But after some careful research and detailed study, she found out how difficult it is for an average woman to get back to where she’d left off in her career before pregnancy, and the dismal numbers of women rejoining work after maternity leave startled her. She founded Women Restart to create a support system around talented women professionals who wanted to return to their careers after a break.
What she learnt from her personal experiences
Sheetal herself has seen several highs and lows while setting up a successful career for herself. Born in Najibabad, a small town in Uttar Pradesh, it took a lot of convincing to get her parents’ permission to let her move out of home to study further. She then spent five years in Ghaziabad, where she completed her graduation, and moved to Delhi for her post-graduate degree in marketing management. What followed were successful stints in marketing and training jobs with companies like Just Dial, EXL, and Patni. However, Sheetal’s mother insisted that she take up a B. Ed degree and become a teacher, which she felt would offer the most flexibility after marriage.
“I resented it at that time but gave in after all the pressure and tears!” she says.
She got married in 2004, and was lucky to have a husband who was very supportive of her choices. The couple then moved to Bangalore, and Sheetal took up a job with iGate. She explored territories like team management and HR, which she had never done before, but nothing seemed to click. Her husband’s job demanded constant travel, which led Sheetal to quit her job and travel with him.
“I didn’t mind initially as I was having fun travelling. We lived in Dubai, Singapore, and the UK, and travelled through Spain, France, and Switzerland during this time. That’s when I realised that an integral part of me was missing. I wanted my professional identity too.”
She then started working in the UK, where she managed a team of telesales executives. But only a few months, later she had her first child and career once again took a backseat.
“I loved being a full-time mother for the next two years. And that’s when reality sunk in again.”
She knew she could not get back to the full-time job as there was nobody to take care of her son in the UK. That is when she started looking for working opportunities with flexi-timings.
How she became an entrepreneur?
Her quest for a perfect job ended when she co-founded an edutech company, eDistance Learning in the UK. The company has now been running successfully for the last six years. Around the same time, however, the family had to move to India, but Sheetal continued to manage operations remotely. She never faced a problem managing her home and work, as most of their staff were also based remotely.
Sheetal had her second child in 2013, but her maternity break lasted only four months this time around. It was not easy, but she was flooded with questions from friends on how she managed her responsibilities so well. She started taking notice of close friends around her who had taken the leap and restarted their career full-time. She noticed that this process was not very sustainable and smooth.
“I was working from home and was very fortunate to have great support at home – my husband, kids, we work as a team! But let us be honest. How many of us are able to find that perfect balance?” This got her thinking and prompted her to move to a lesser demanding role with Women Restart.
Why is it difficult for women to get back to work after a break?
She started by conducting online surveys and figured that there is a large section of women who face challenges with planning, changing, restarting, or even progressing in their Careers. Women Restart was formed with the vision of putting together a supportive platform for women professionals. The platform helps professionals returning to the workforce by helping them acquire new skills, and ensuring their return to the workforce is smooth and sustainable.
“It’s very easy for these women to give up because most of them do not ‘need’ the job. We keep them motivated and engaged, and ensure that they regain their financial independence and professional identity.” she says talking about her venture.
The bootstrapped venture now has over 2,000 women who have sought its services in a short span of two months. It has also partnered with funded startups like Vedantu, Peakalpha, and Calm. Io, among others. Women Restart offers various services such as a free of cost Job Readiness Assessment to gauge the Readiness to Restart in a candidate. There is also a Restart Programme, which is chargeable at Rs 999, and is for those who wish to regain their confidence. Women Restart then recommends skill development courses to these candidates, allowing them to upgrade their skills and start a new career, following which they can start applying for jobs or attend one of Women Restart’s hiring events.
Which are the organisations that help women re-join the workforce?
Many organisations have been working towards helping women join as well as re-join the workforce.
Bangalore-based JobsForHer.com is currently seeing a traction of 50,000 visitors per month with approximately 2.50 monthly page-views. In its first year in lean-startup mode, and operating out of Bangalore, JobsForHer is already associated with more than 750 companies, including Citibank, Future Group, GE, Godrej Group, Kotak Mahindra Group, SnapDeal, Unilever, and several other SMEs as well as startups.
Started in 2005, Chennai-based Avtar I-Win was the pioneer in helping women restart their careers. They facilitated the hiring of around 450 women employees for the Future Group way back in 2006. Avtar I-Win has nearly 40,000 women on its network, and has placed 8,000 women returning to work after a break.
Noida-based SHEROES.in, which was founded in January 2014, raised Rs 5 crore of funding in an angel round.
HerSecondInnings has a presence in Bengaluru and Mumbai, and offers ‘work from home’ options, temporary assignments, permanent jobs, projects and consultancy and entrepreneurial opportunities. Over 2,000 women have been accessing the portal for job options as well as for coaching to help develop their skills as well as to better understand their options.
However, research shows 45.9 percent of all enrolled undergraduate students, and 40.5 percent of all enrolled PhD students in India today are women. On the other hand, women’s participation in the labour force has been falling – to 29 percent in 2009-10 from 37 percent in 2004-05. If India can increase women’s participation in the labour force by 10 percentage points (68 million more women) by 2025, India could increase its GDP by 16 percent.
Hence, the space can definitely do with more players like Women Restart to help improve the situation.
So, what’s next for the two-month old venture?
“We are looking to get more and more providers on board in the next six months. We will get into strategic partnerships with organisations, who will enable us to create a support system around returning mothers. We will onboard providers in several verticals like Child Care, Elderly Care, Health Care, Home Care, Events for Women, and also Travel to relax and unwind. After all, “We are worth it!!”, Sheetal concludes.