The struggle is real for women on a career break

Tanvi Dubey

Rekha Balakrishnan

The struggle is real for women on a career break

Monday October 15, 2018,

5 min Read

Women take a break from their careers for different reasons. But if you are planning to get back to work, don’t be disconnected from what you are after, experts advise women on a career break.

Diya Raj, a former journalist, currently on a break after giving birth to her son, says maternity leave poses a conundrum: the guilt never goes away. While you are happy with your child, you are sceptical and anxious about what the break will do to your career.

At a corporate leadership programme we attended recently, a large number of women were grappling with the same ‘return-to-work’ question. The general consensus was that this is one area in a woman’s career that causes her the most upheaval and consternation.

Why women take a career break

The most common reasons for women taking a break from their careers are primarily personal. It may be due to pregnancy, childbirth, to take care of children or the elderly. Another reason is the lack of expected career growth or development.

After 13 years at the workplace, Prafulla Devakumar decided to take a break to re-examine her career and understand why it had not progressed as expected.

However, it gave her an opportunity to upskill herself, and use her free time to pursue hobbies, and spend quality time with family. Though she is back to work as an IT manager, something she hasn’t done before, she feels the most challenging part of being on a career break is getting the right job, despite the opportunities in the market.

The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy states, “In India, we are seeing more women take an interest in technology and joining STEM. But where we see a challenge is that this ratio starts to skew at the mid-career level. We see this problem across the country. As a result of this, 2.4 million women dropped out of the workforce in 2017 due to factors such as family pressures and wage disparity.”

So maternity, lack of equal pay and gender bias at the workplace pose the primary challenges for women and often result in them dropping off the workforce.

Challenges persist, but women need to return

Several Indian and global reports emphasise the extent of women’s contribution to the workforce and how women are needed at the workplace for the country’s GDP to go up.

Jayanthi Vaidyanathan, Senior Director, HR at PayPal India, says research has found that most women get discouraged from returning to work after a break “due to a mix of societal expectations and confusion as to where to start in a working environment that has progressed since their last term of employment”.

With more than 20 years of experience, Thejaswini Balaji, a mid-management executive, took a career break due to reorganisation, post which she found her assignment wasn’t challenging enough. She then decided to quit. However, getting back isn’t easy. She says,

There has been a lot of challenges getting back to work, as most of the companies have a work culture that values youth over age and experience and, of course, there is the gender bias too. The companies that have returnee programmes don’t seem to have helped much either, even after reaching out to them in person.

The struggle is real, but you have to ride the wave

The struggles are many and they are real, says Rajesh Bhat, founder and CEO - Iron Lady, a business leadership programme for women. “Women go through a series of self-doubts as they contemplate returning to work. ‘Will I get an interview call?’, ‘will my profile get due attention?’, ‘will I be able to balance my work and other household responsibilities’, ‘will I be treated with the same respect after my break?’ are some of the common ones.”

According to him, there are both external and internal roadblocks and both are tough to tackle. However, external roadblocks are also about bias, and assumptions on the part of organisations and recruiters. Rajesh points out a few such as the notion that candidates with break are not in sync with industry standards and hence can't be very effective to start with; there is an assumption that the returnees need not be compensated at normal industry level and hence are offered much lesser for their potential. Profiles, roles or salaries that are much lower than the ability of the candidates can be offered and people may still join. The general tendency of not shortlisting candidates with break even for the interviews.

While challenges exist and will continue to exist, the way out is by not treating the break as a complete disconnect.

Rajesh is emphatic about a complete break being a no-no. “Keep yourself updated with the latest from the industry, especially tech. Build a powerful profile by ensuring that the break does not come across as an apology but an opportunity. Define clear short-term and long-term career goals and work on them with confidence. Learn and practise to play on your strengths during interviews; above all, network extensively.”

However, there is a silver lining for those who want to see it. It is the availability of time. And though new mothers and mothers on a break may not have as much time, it is important to use what they have well.

As Tejaswini points out, “It has been a lucky break.” For it has helped her reskill herself with respect to women leadership skills, strategic management, short-term consulting on process analysis, enterprise architecture, etc. Skills she would not have the bandwidth to acquire along with a full-time job.

So what to do during the break? How can one use that time to upskill or re-skill to come back with a CV that shows great utilisation of time and not just a break from work? Read all about it in the next article in this series.

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Read the second part of the series here