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Why working mothers quit the workforce and what can be done about it

Monday February 06, 2017,

5 min Read

It is not uncommon to see the trend of working mothers nowadays. The desire to improve the economic status of the families and the desire for self-actualization are key factors playing role in more women wanting to join the workforce. It is healthy for women to want to work towards their goals and build up a career for themselves. However, working mother often finds it difficult to split their roles between the home and at work. She is expected to be a good and caring mother in raising her children at home and at the same time she is required to be hardworking and fully committed at work. This presents a difficult balancing act for working mothers.

I travelled to India for work last couple of years. While I was working and travelling I started to pick up some things not related to my work but related to women in general working in India.

Most of you may or may not know, a study by Thornton shows that, globally, 22 % of senior roles are held by women, but India ranks third lowest in the proportion of business leadership roles held by women.

Looking at the number may not mean much to a lot of people, but I had started seeing some trend myself. I started digging deeper. Despite strong economic growth and rising wages, the falling engagement of women in the Indian workforce is quiet noticeable. The data from World Bank shows that even as the poverty recedes in India, women are dropping out of workforce.

Ever wonder what may be causing this? We understand that the decision of and ability for women to work depends on various economic and social factors. Based on global evidence, and as per World Bank ILO, some of the most important drivers include educational attainment, fertility rates and the age of marriage, economic growth, and urbanization. Social norms determining the role of women in the public domain continue to affect outcomes too.

"The problem is that when we go back to work after becoming mothers, we are given less responsibility and unimportant projects since we can't stay for long hours. Companies start considering us the weakest link in the team." – Former Employee at a multinational company. I had chance to interact with some aspiring young women physicists while working on my project. As we got along and worked together I found out that some of these young ladies will not be perusing their career further, either due to the fact, that they were getting married or they are married and going to have a baby. Returning to work will become difficult for them for several reasons. How often do we hear this from men?

Well, social norms are just rules of behavior shared by members of social groups. Yet, they are so ingrained in the social minds that women fall prey to them. They are expected to fulfill multiple roles with quality both at home and in the workplace. There are significant societal barriers that inhibit educated mothers from joining the workforce, remaining in the workforce after the birth or adoption of a child, or working to their full potential. There is also that inevitable feeling of guilt for having left the children to work. The feeling of guilt and the difficulty to divide her time well between work and family may have an effect on the working mother’s satisfaction in parenting. And then there is that fear of constantly being judged for everything she is trying to do. It does not help that society is constantly comparing between working mothers and stay home mother and their ability to raise a child. Working mothers are constantly reminded by the society how a stay home mother has better capacity to raise a better child. I mean who decided that? Where is the research to prove that? What are the end factors to determine if the child is raised better or not? It should be a choice of a woman to work and raise a child or stay home and raise a child. Social norms should not be the determining factor.

So what can be done about it? How can organizations help in this? If proper change has to be imparted it has to start from the workplace. Organizations have to realize that business is also affected because you train/invest in people and then they leave [to raise a child] just when you are about to bear the fruit of your investment. Then they have to re-invest, which is costly. Businesses genuinely have to accept gender diversity and accept that women are capable of handling work and family. We’ve heard businesses talk the talk on gender equality for decades now, but still very few are talking that walk. Companies, small or big, can take steps towards reforming their organizational culture to foster family friendly business. Creative flexi working, crèches in workplace, maternity and paternity plans, and support for working mothers in transitioning back to work are some of the recommended organizational must haves to retain talented women workforce, reduce working mother’s anxiety leading to guilt of not raising their child and in turn forced to leave the career they always wanted and they know they are good at. Among everything else these companies can start from building crèches within workplaces where mothers can visit their children during the day. The greater responsibility of a mother in caring for her children might impact negatively on her satisfaction with three important roles in her life that as a mother, a wife, and a worker .In such cases start with building the infrastructure to allow women to thrive in the workforce. In India that can include inviting the family, in-laws, to work, to showcase how their women are performing in the workplace to enhance the company and themselves.

You want to become the organization people want to work for. As Sir Richard Branson rightly said that train people well enough so that they can leave, treat them well enough so they don't want to leave.