Time to talk: what has to change for working women at workplaces everywhere?


According to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) 2017 Global Gender Gap report, which measures the participation gap, the remuneration gap, and the advancement gap, working women are behind men by 58 percent. This is a systemic issue that cannot be attributed to individual circumstances; it is endemic to organisational structures, cultures, and practices. WEF concluded that at the current rate of change, we won’t see gender equality in the global workforce for at least another 200 years.

To attract and keep female talent, employers must be transparent about their commitment to diversity, their diversity progress, and create an open and inclusive culture where women can thrive and reach their potential.

There is an urgent need to address the challenges women face, like gender discrimination, unconscious biases, inclusive environment, supporting networks, the motherhood penalty, flexibility challenge, and the slow progress in bridging the gender gap. Women want to spend quality time with their families, without compromising on their work or feel like they are neglecting either.

Empowering women is a smart attribute for business. Profitability, ROI, and innovation, all increase when women are part of the workforce. We cannot grow our business, jobs, and our economy if women are left out of the workforce. Companies need to support changing mindsets and help build a pipeline of female talent. Let’s take a look at why women are dropping out of the workforce and not returning, and what has to change:

Gender bias: addressing the elephant in the room

If there’s one thing that’s clear in this entire debate on gender diversity, that’s standing in the way of more inclusive outcomes in the workplace, it is bias. Every person holds certain implicit biases, that are essentially strong beliefs or perceptions that one has about certain things. The reason they’re implicit is that they’re usually unconscious, sitting just below the level of our conscious awareness. Implicit biases are hidden, latent, and unintentional, but they manifest themselves in much different behaviour.

There are many biases towards women that have existed for a long time – particularly about women with children. For example, women tend to be distracted by child care responsibilities, or that they won’t work long hours into the night to meet a deadline, etc.

When hiring managers hold these implicit biases, the outcomes for the talent pool of women returning to work from career breaks are less than favourable. As Bhavna Toor, the founder of Shenomics repeatedly points out, it is important to be aware of these biases in order to minimize them and in order to reduce their negative fall outs or outcomes.

Many working women face what is known as the Motherhood Penalty: a wall – so to speak – that they come up against in their professional lives, where they are judged, often unfairly, about their value. For example, the perception that women are less committed to work or aren’t as ambitious as men because they also have domestic duties as mothers or wives or daughters or daughters-in-law.

We need family-friendly policies, not women-friendly ones

Last year, India extended the amount of maternity leave for female employees to six months. While many lauded this as a welcome move in retaining good female talent, the fall out was that it also served as a disincentive for smaller companies to hire women in the first place.

This takes us right back to the Leaky Pipeline. The largest percent of Indian women leaving the workforce (the ‘leak’) happens between the junior and middle level, as opposed to between the middle and senior levels. Familial pressure and cultural norms are most often cited as reasons for leaving in the early stages, and women often find it easier to remain at junior levels or to leave the workforce altogether.

This is what we were trying to plug or fix in the first place. The conversation needs to move to put in place more family-friendly policies that in turn incentivize men to take on more of the responsibility of parenting, so women are not burdened with the Motherhood Penalty at work. It is only when this shift happens that the needle will truly move, both at home and at work. Balance cannot be achieved on one front alone.

The bottom line is that it makes financial sense for a company to design and implement parental leave policies, invest in its female workforce, retain their talent, plan ahead for when female employees take leave, hire suitable contract employees to fill their spot, and welcome them back after their leave to restart their careers when they’re ready.

This is an area that can truly affect change by looking at the big picture. Fortunately, many companies in India are waking up to this realization and stepping up to the plate.

Uberise the workplace for greater efficiency

The traditional 9-to-5 full-time job is being turned on its head as the world becomes smaller and busier, and businesses become more efficient. In this day and age, when time is at a premium and traffic is a daily nightmare, working mothers prefer flexibility rather than working from the confines of an office, in order to have greater control over their time. Companies also gain from these sorts of working arrangements, with reduced infrastructure costs and greater efficiency. Work-from-home, flexi-time, and part-time jobs are on the rise.

The nature of workplaces and the needs of employees have changed over time. On the one hand, the value of personal time and a work-life balance have become increasingly important, and on the other, companies are looking for new and innovative ways to increase their margins and improve overall efficiencies and bottom lines, as competition increases. The Uberization concept meets both these ends of the spectrum beautifully.

Women returnees are perfect for a gig economy model, and companies are working on templatizing certain roles and jobs that are conducive to this concept. Work-from-home and part-time/freelance assignments are amenable to types of work that can be templated and monitored efficiently.

Uberization is an important step in the right direction and is low-hanging fruit for companies looking to diversify their workforces. When more women return to work after career breaks, companies must make the effort to understand their needs, in order to retain them in the long term.

A MentorForHer platform for retaining women

When I founded JobsForHer three years ago, our mission was to bring more women back to work in India. There were literally hundreds, thousands of women out there who were in the same position, looking to re-enter the workforce, with no clue where to begin. So we began on our journey, helping to bridge the gap between companies and women returning to work from career breaks.

Three years on, we’ve come a long way in our mission to change this status quo. From helping companies hire more women, JobsForHer has gone the extra mile in understanding the needs of the talent pool and the needs of companies who stand to benefit from this latent talent pool. We’ve understood, for example, the need for women who have taken career breaks to reskill themselves when jumping back into the workforce. We’ve recognised the need for women returnees to have strong mentors, which is why we created a MentorForHer platform connecting senior corporate leaders across industries with women returnees across India.

Reskill restarters: a growing need

According to a World Bank study, nearly 20 million Indian women quit jobs between 2004-12. Around 65-70 percent of women who quit never return to work at all. In the last three years, we have witnessed that the obstacles to restart are many, with outdated skills being the biggest deterrent. A large percentage of women see reskilling as a necessity for their career restart, progression, and job role changes. Hence, there is a growing need for on-demand skilling amongst this group of job seekers.

This growing job-seeking population drives the demand for industry-relevant training as there is a skills gap that needs to be bridged before getting back into the workforce. There is a need to reskill these women and make them part of the workforce.

Today, women are more confident and ambitious than ever about returning to the workforce, but employers still need to work harder to address the existing challenges in the workplace for women to professionally scale new heights.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)


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