Back to work: Has it become easier for women to rejoin the workforce after a break?
What are the challenges women employees face as they return to the workforce after a hiatus and how can companies allay their doubts and fears and help in reskilling them? Leaders across India Inc weigh in.
In 2020, Anamika Sengupta was fired from her corporate job after she returned after a maternity break.
“I was working in a managerial role with an IT giant and was penalised for ‘being a woman’ and a ‘new mother’. I became a victim of a sexist corporate company, which refused to accept me after my maternity leave,” she tells HerStory.
India Inc’s loss was the startup ecosystem’s gain. Anamika started Almitra Tattva and Almitra Sustainables, a sustainable products company, and is a successful entrepreneur today.
But not every woman gets a second chance to reclaim her career. Returning to work after a break still remains tough for a lot of women employees.
More women than men are often forced to take a career break due to personal reasons, including but not limited to pregnancy, childbirth, taking care of children or the elderly. Another reason is the lack of expected career growth or development.
Take Sumithra, for example, who decided to become a mother in her early 30s amid a thriving corporate career.
“For a career woman in a corporate environment, this is a common age when opportunities for leadership and management positions open. I did take a step back given the travel demands for a leadership role and decided to focus on raising my son. After he turned three, I was quite eager to get back and become financially independent once again,” she says.
But reality hit hard.
“All my negotiations were around flexibility, limited travel, shorter hours that would help me stay closer to my son. I even offered to set up a quality daycare to help retain and bring back new mums who are fully capable, but my strengths and the available roles just didn't match. This is usually the tipping point for most new mums. When you have a support system or a village behind to give you a sense of assurance, many choose a career. But I didn't have that option. So, I chose to focus and raise him instead,” she explains.
Sumithra tried — at various points — to go back to work but it didn’t work out. The fear of leaving her child with unknown strangers, or in a daycare far away were too much of a risk for her. However, this prompted her to think in a different direction. After trying her hand at photography, a pre-school admin role she teamed up with her mum to build Rusingo – Soulfully Indian, a range of ready-to-eat food.
The most important thing, she believes, is to not give up and to keep believing in your potential. “Corporates will not understand the struggles of parenting entirely. Investors may not relate to the personal challenges you have in raising a family. But when your child is growing up, taking baby steps with them to do something you're passionate about — small or big — is a remarkable journey.”
Ranjini* was not as lucky as Anamika or Sumithra. After returning to the role of a team lead at a corporate after her maternity break, she was besieged by all kinds of guilt – leaving her daughter in daycare, and not being able to give her job the focus it deserved. She opted out of travelling (a prerequisite of her job) and had to opt for a less challenging position.
“To add to my situation at work, my mother-in-law had to undergo surgery and had a long recovery period. With no one else to step in, I had to leave my job. It’s been a year with both child and caregiving responsibilities, and there’s no respite. I have no hope to get back to a career and a role I love,” she says.
According to a study conducted by the Genpact Centre for Women’s Leadership, about 50 percent of working women in India leave their jobs to take care of their children at the age of 30. Even among those who manage to return, a huge fraction drops out within four months of rejoining the workforce.
The report added that after becoming mothers, only 27 percent of women advance in their careers and continue to be part of the workforce. Of the women who return to employment, a meagre 16 percent advance to hold senior leadership positions. The report was based on a study conducted on women working in the corporate, media, and development sectors.
The impact on women’s jobs during COVID-19
A survey titled, ‘Women rejoining work post-COVID-19’, conducted by job site Indeed, found a significant and more pronounced impact of the pandemic on women rejoining the workforce compared with men, exacerbating a national labour shortage.
Nearly half of all women said the pandemic had negatively impacted their career paths. Fifty-eight percent are in the process of rejoining the workforce, 48 percent had quit their jobs before COVID-19, 32 percent quit during, and another 20 percent were between jobs.
About 58 percent of women respondents believe that over the last two years, female employees quit their jobs to take on more family responsibilities, such as childcare. Thirty-two percent of women said they quit because of the pandemic, with health concerns (21 percent) and maternity leave (13 percent) the other reasons given.
A significant proportion of employers (39 percent) agreed with the view that female employees quit their organisations over the last two years because of family responsibilities. Twenty-seven percent said that a lack of appropriate recognition by management was a significant factor in causing women to quit, and 20 percent believed health and safety concerns, likely driven by the pandemic, were the reason.
Advertising professional Rujuta Deshpande rejoined work after a seven-month maternity break early this year.
“With a four-month-old baby, I was apprehensive yet curious about getting back to a high-pressure work environment. And with the Omicron variant threat looming during my joining, I was in a dilemma. Fortunately, flexible hours and a work-from-home arrangement helped me get back on my corporate journey without the guilt of abandoning my infant. My colleagues have been supportive, and the management being mindful of my workload has helped me achieve a good balance between my work and duties at home.”
She believes organisations with flexible and meaningful maternity policies surely empower women to get back to their careers after a life-changing event like childbirth.
Sirisha*, who had her first child as the pandemic struck in March 2020, found it difficult to return to work in the new normal.
“Six months after I had had my baby, the pandemic had still not abated. It was difficult to get reliable hired help as I worked long shifts in my job. I struggled for a couple of months, then gave it up as it was taking a toll on my physical and mental health, apart from the feelings of guilt of not giving enough time to my baby,” she says.
Maternity leave, and more
To help women ease back into their roles after a break, including maternity, many corporate organisations are offering short as well as long-term benefits.
Himal Tewari, CHRO, Tata Power, says, “Tata Power has enabling policies for women employees who wish to take time off work, whether, for reasons of personal health, family exigencies, higher education, or social service, special sick leave is granted in case of any severe long-term ailment, extended maternity leave. Tata Power supports women colleagues through extended maternity leaves, adoption and surrogacy leaves, flexible timings post-maternity, performance rating protection during maternity, and childcare facilities like creche and reimbursement for a nanny.”
Deepti Varma, Director, HR for Amazon in APAC, and the Middle East, elaborates on her company’s policies, “Amazon India’s paid maternity leave offers benefits to employees including birth mothers and adoptive mothers. The benefit provides continuous job protection, paid leave of absence for up to 26 weeks surrounding the birth or adoption of a child. Under any unfortunate circumstance, such as loss of pregnancy or stillbirth, Amazon extends the paid leaves anywhere between six to ten weeks, depending on the severity of the situation. With varieties of parental leave, an effective ramp back programme, daycare benefits and private rooms for mothers, these efforts help in providing an inclusive work environment to working parents.”
“At PayU, women employees are offered paid leave (six months in India) and flexible working options (even prior to pandemic) after rejoining work. Further, employees on maternity break or adoption leave are included in the appraisal process, irrespective of the number of months worked during the appraisal period. In Indian offices, after returning to work, women receive child daycare subsidies and there is a nursing room for mothers,” says Priya Cherian, Chief People Officer.
Powering women to return to work
Will I be able to return to my old position at work? How do I develop new skills? Will I be able to cope with changes in the industry? How will I manage both work and home?
These are some of the niggling doubts women face as they contemplate returning to work after a break. Several corporate entities have put in place, returnship programmes to help women get back to the workforce, without having to jump too many hurdles.
“Our ‘rekindle’ initiative provides a launchpad to women who have taken a break in their careers due to any circumstances. Structured onboarding, focused mentoring, flexible work options, and on-the-job learning is the key elements to help potential candidates in ramping up. Another initiative is the Ramp Back Program, which enables employees to transition smoothly to work, post their maternity/paternity leave. Under the programme, employees can have a modified work schedule for up to eight weeks. This helps them ease their way into working full time without getting overwhelmed,” says Deepthi of Amazon.
Mashreq has put in place, the “Returning Mothers Program”, curated with a special focus on aiding new mothers/women who are returning to work after a career break.
According to Mithun Sasi, VP and Head of Human Resources, Mashreq Bangalore, “The six-month programme aims to promote diversity and boost the work experience and networking opportunities for returnees. During this period, women are assigned career counsellors, engaged in workshops and development plans, and provided extended support for on-job training to ensure that their transition into work is smooth and empowering.”
PayPal runs a unique six-week programme – ‘Recharge’ — focused on empowering women technologists to get back to work after they took a career break of 1-5 years to explore their passion, develop interests, or spend time to take care of their family.
Jayanthi Vaidyanathan, Senior Director and Head – HR, PayPal India, elaborates,
“The programme is open to women who have at least 5 years of experience in product, product development, data, analytics, and operations. The initiative is undertaken to nurture the women in the industry while giving them the option and freedom to join companies of their choice. They have an opportunity to network with PayPal and industry leaders, followed by a three-week technology bootcamp.
Understanding that returning to work after a break can be quite challenging, Qualcomm launched the Quantum Leap programme to support women who want to restart their careers.
“It is open to all female candidates who have taken a career break of at least 12 months and have prior work experience that matches the current requirements for the identified job positions. It includes extensive pre-and post-hiring engagement to enable their seamless assimilation into the workforce. Candidates are provided with relevant information to help them prepare for the interview, after which they go through Qualcomm’s standard interview process. Once the selected candidates are onboarded, we help them blend into the Qualcomm work culture with orientation programs and mentoring support,” explains Shalini Prasad, Senior Director, Human Resources, Qualcomm India Pvt. Ltd and India HR Head.
Once the offer is rolled out, every new hire is assigned a Qualcomm women employee (Qwomen) buddy, who can help her ease into the office and the work culture.
Aruna C. Newton, Associate Vice-President and Head of Global Diversity and Inclusion, Sustainability Reporting and Governance, Infosys, lists out the organisation’s efforts in helping women return to work after a break, especially maternity.
• The Infy Me app, Infosys’ new digital experience landscape for employees has a service called iMother, designed to help women stay connected, relevant, and inspired during this important stage of their personal and professional lives.
• A formal integration space for returning mothers, known as Mom’s Net, provides well-appointed workstations, interaction spaces, and lactation and competency development programs delivered through LEX, its highly scalable, modular learning app, career counselling sessions, experience sharing modules, and Family Matters sessions. The ‘Restart with Infosys’ programme has learning, mentoring, buddying and importantly flexi work options all rolled into one to enable women to integrate and progress in their careers with minimum disruption.
Astrazeneca offers a mentoring programme called ‘NOW-Network of Women’, which helps women to interact with relatable work models. It is a platform to exchange learnings, ideate and gain a global experience for women who have begun, or aspire to begin their leadership journey.
Flipkart introduced a ‘Mom on Board’ programme in 2019, which enables women to grow in their careers in a structured manner, throughout their maternity journey. The policies and practices of the programme lay down a clear roadmap to assist new mothers in their journey back to work ensuring holistic support for them to grow in their roles within the organisation.
It also has the 'Flip Forward' programme, which was launched with an aim to improve the talent pool for hiring more diverse talent — by offering career opportunities to women who are currently on a break for personal reasons and are looking to restart their careers. 'Mentoring Circles' give women access to senior leadership, influential peers, and potential sponsors, and engage them in networks.
Srikripa Srinivasan, Vice President, Performance Analytics Group, Dell Technologies, puts it succinctly in an earlier conversation with HerStory. She uses a cricketing analogy to drive home that work-life balance is in our hands.
“Look at it like a test match. If you want to have a career and a life, balance it out, saying these are my work hours, these are the weeks I need to play a T20, and on others, I might have to look at it as a one-day match, and there are some weeks where I have to play it like a test match – be with my children and the rest of my family,” she said.
Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta