career after break

2nd Innings – The Ecosystem’s Getting Ready

“To love what you do and feel that it matters-how could anything be more fun?” -Katharine Graham, the first female CEO of a Fortune  500 enterprise (The Washington Post Company)

It is indeed the fun of doing what you love to do and want to do, that often triggers the strong urge in some women to desire a second-time career, in pursuit of that elusive happiness, apart from reasons of gaining financial stability etc. These women are one of a kind-having learnt to manage their energies, both negative and positive during their breaks. These are women who at one point in their lives would have screamed from the rooftops: “God, give me a break” and then having quit and now wanting to get back, say: “Give me a life, a Second Life”.

We at Dataquest are not debating if such women are able to make it back, we know for sure that some do as we try to dig out and learn a few home-truths pertinent to the Indian scenario and, of course, the go-getting Indian women.

Organizations today are definitely willing to encourage the raring-to-go women talent-the kinds who want to get back to careers after a sabbatical or a break or are wanting to have a go at it once again, with far more positivity, zest and enthusiasm. It’s a taken that organizations do have gender inclusivity/diversity as priority areas in their people powering agenda, now having understood the difference that attitudes of women can make to the successful running of the organization. Ever since the world-famous observation of George Harvey (CEO of Pitney Bowes in the 1980s) that retired school teachers made excellent salespeople and who henceforth decided to nurture women talent in the company at all levels-be it at the top, or middle or entry level-was noticed, a distinct change has begun to be noticed globally. This seems to have begun to be imbibed in modern day organizations in India too.

“Often I notice, having an opportunity to make a comeback also is a motivating fuel. So it’s a win-win, the woman employee feels included and it’s a welcome situation for the organization as well,” says Sunita Cherian, VP, HR, Wipro Ecoenergy.

However some questions that do arise are:

  • Are such women really capable of adjusting into current real-life situations at work? How long would the enthusiasm of getting back sustain? More critically,
  • To what lengths would an organization be willing to invest in terms of time and money in nurturing this talent? What initiatives do the companies take to help this talent get back into the grind?
  • How do colleagues take the re-entry of such women in their stride? After all, these women are the sure-hopefuls for rebuilding strong careers and get hand-picked by the top bosses for re-entry?
  • Does this have a backlash or does it generate healthy competitiveness in the various rungs, thus helping the organization succeed?   And more importantly, do these women actually succeed and rise to the top and thus give cause to the younger generation women to follow as their role models?

What we discovered was very surprising. No doubt, women talent nowadays is being given impetus as women have been found to have a very collaborative and participative approach to many issues. Meritocracy, of course, is largely the keyword. The individual is inducted solely on the basis of her skills and talent, ability to pick up and adjust to the changes, her willingness to get back to the same position where she had left off despite the probability of juniors bossing over her now, her improved management skills on the home-front etc. And of course, there’s much more encouragement if she is backed by an empathetic employer organization who is willing to tap her potential.

Modern day organizations in the IT industry in India are making every effort to minimize the chances of women leaving their jobs in the first place, and then going in for recruitment of ex-women-employees rather than spending more on fresh recruits. For example, for Infosys, diversity in talent is not an option but a critical success factor. The company says, “As a global corporation operating in multiple geographies, diversity will enable the company to build confidence and trust in the minds of customers and employees. And further, it is important to expand the bottom of the pyramid ie, at the entry level intake of more women, it is equally important to chart out a strategy to retain women as they move up in their career lifecycles. As part of retention, it is also necessary to maintain the gender ratios by enabling the increase of women in senior management.”

“At Infosys we have seen steady growth in the number of women applying for the jobs available. Today 34% of our workforce comprises of women. These women are as competent and capable as any other male member. It is essential for us to nurture them and provide them the support that is required at different stages of a women’s life cycle some of which are very important especially in the Indian context-marriage, childbearing, child care, elder care, etc,” the company also adds. Many companies such as Accenture India, Wipro, IBM India, Genpact India etc, subscribe to this concept today.

Leaving Flourishing Careers

Focusing on the lot of women who are wanting to come back, companies claim that the approach has changed for the better as mindsets are changing. These women may have left flourishing careers due to several reasons such as opting for higher studies, or wanting to balance their careers and personal aspirations with other priorities such as looking after family members such as their husbands, in-laws, parents, differently-abled children, etc, and these issues could require as much, if not more, of her attention at any point of time in her career. “Yes, a woman does not leave a good career out of choice, it is more due to different roles’ expectations from her, especially in a culture like ours; it is tough doing the juggling act,” says Nirmala Menon, co-founder, Interweave.in, a diversity consulting organization.

These thoughts are echoed by several organizations. “Today working women, we would say do not leave their careers but opt out of it for some time due to their personal engagements/requirements. And let us tell you that it is very difficult for a woman to quit a job which becomes her personal and professional identification over a period of time. It is also said/believed that a lot of women opt out of their careers also because of inappropriate support from the organization also. At HCL, our senior management extends its full support to formulate policies that prove helpful for women and add to our business advantage,” says Srimathi Shivashankar, AVP, diversity and sustainability, HCL Technologies.

What underlies the pysche behind leaving flourishing careers is clearly depicted by what Jyothsna Hirode, senior manager, India Diversity Team, HR Integrated Services Team (IST), IBM India, says “Well, if we look at the exit interviews…these women have left IBM earlier because of something extraneous, something due to personal reasons, relocations-to be with the family/social reasons etc. IBM tracks them as there is an opportunity to bring these women back. Certainly we are familiar with their skills, they are familiar with IBM-it makes a lot of difference.

Underlying all this is the overall diversity philosophy of IBM-to have more women is not just the line to have-it is more because of the value diversity within the workforce, because we feel that it is likely to bring in more innovation and that will bring more value for our clients. Underlying is the need for attracting more women, advancement of women and related constituents that are prime to us.”  Yet despite these breaks, many women want and manage to get back too after a sabbatical. A trend that has been observed is that several organizations are looking at this seriously, although it may not have become a standard practice as yet. “Losing out on women who have taken a career break would mean highly talented brain-drain, especially if they are a cultural fit. We do not want to lose the talent after putting in so much of training and skilling time,” Rajnish Sinha, senior VP, HR, Genpact India and Philippines says. “We look at the historical performance of the woman, if she has been a good performer, there is no reason not to try to accommodate her,” he adds.

There is strong backing from the organization for women returning from a sabbatical too. “From an organizational standpoint, flexibility is part of managing an inclusive corporation; it is a means of integrating principles of inclusion into practice, enhancing our ability to function seamlessly as one global network across time zones and borders and allowing for “voice and choice” in how our people deliver results. We as an organization focus on outcomes and not hours to determine if an employee is productive. When a woman returns to an organization to start a second innings, she requires added support to strike a balance between her professional requirement and family commitments,” Manoj Biswas, lead, HR, Accenture India states. Organizations understand the criticality of the issue and are now being very accomodative. “The industry, across sectors, has realized that it is critical to retain the existing women workforce and those wanting to come back. Numerous studies have shown that increasing gender equality enhances the productivity and corporate performance of the company. Thus today companies are providing platforms for better talent management, flexible work culture to accommodate their personal needs and launching initiatives that foster their personal and professional development,” Srimathi Shivashankar, HCLT, emphasizes.

In fact, the recent Global Gender Gap Report 2011 released by the World Economic Forum suggests that among the women in India, the ability of women to rise to positions of enterprise leadership is strong, with a score of 4.45 with the responses scale being 1=worst and 7 the best. So, why should companies have any reason to miss out on such women talent?

Challenges these Women

Face The challenges are plenty-both for women wanting to come back and also for women who have made a comeback. The challenges for women wanting to come back are primarily dependent on the organizational needs-whether companies would find her to be the right fit in a right role; are there suitable vacancies, would she be able to cope up with family issues better now, and most importantly, whether she would be as good a performer as she had been before.

The concerns for women who have come back could be in terms of behaviors in teams, in terms of competition from erstwhile peers-a junior could now be her senior when the woman returns or someone may resent her coming in, having expected to step into her role while she had been away. “This situation could happen sometimes, and I believe that it’s very important for the team and manager to bond well together for a great experience,” says Sunita Rebecca Cherian, VP, HR, Wipro Ecoenergy. “We have programs like New Manager Assimilation to enable a new manager and team to settle in quickly, and behavioral programs for improving individual ability in influencing the peer ecosystem. Bringing in transparency and discussing issues openly usually clears the air and sets the platform for productive working relationships,” she adds. The other main issues are in terms of quicker adaptability to the changed or latest work culture and environment in the organization, how empathetic her manager or senior is, how updated her skills are, how quickly she’s able to reskill herself etc.

“These women are coming back with much clarity in their minds, if everything else is fine but you have a wrong manager/senior who is insensitive to your needs, your efforts will fail. Making the person sensitized is very essential,” says Nirmala Menon, Interweave.in. Not everyone shares similar polarity. “How unique are such issues for these women? Are they not similar to those faced by other teams or members?” Kritika M, senior diversity manager, Nasscom questions categorically. She also adds, “It’s also no different for companies in India or globally. In fact, in India, start-ups are looking at inclusion of such women much more seriously than bigger established companies.” The 6th Annual Nasscom Diversity and Inclusion Summit 2011 is one of the many initiatives that Nasscom has taken to keep the diversity issue including women coming back after a sabbatical alive in organizations. “I think in the technology industry, the primary challenge that anybody who takes a break has to deal with, is the technology changes that are really, really fast paced.

So it is important for people whether they are taking a break or otherwise, when they come back into the industry to have kept pace with the changes in technology, so I think that’s the primary thing but our recruiting process takes care of that and people who have skills get hired. The second thing is that when people have taken a break, it takes a little while for people to get back to the groove of actually working on full time jobs. Full-time jobs come with deadlines, we all know that full-time jobs also come with a lot of expectations of delivery and responsibility, so that usually is the challenge for people to readjust to, actually working with deadlines and being able to work with multiple people across multiple time zone,” sums up Aparna Ballakur, VP, HR, Yahoo! in India .

Yet another challenge is adapting to the work schedule in the organization. “The challenge could be in terms of adapting oneself to the new 9-9 format instead of 9-6. The higher you rise, you need to put in more flexi hours,” says Anita Vasudeva, co-founder, Fleximoms.in. And from the organization’s perspective, the framework has to rise up to the occasion. “Also Training/Induction sessions need to be designed to bridge the gap created by the break (such as workshops on IT skills to update them on latest technologies, Time Management workshops, Project Management sessions, etc) help immensely to make a smooth transition back to corporate life,” says Radhakrishnan Nair, VP, talent acquisition, Tata Group HR.

Getting Back

A woman making a comeback needs to be very assertive, to tackle the challenges that the workplace will throw at her. Most companies talk of the woman individual’s ability to take proactive measures on her own, to discover opportunities, network with her previous organizations, and remain in touch with the latest technologies. This is highlighted by Srimathi Shivashankar, AVP, diversity and sustainability, HCLT: “After a career break and to enhance their career prospects, women themselves have to be assertive in terms of their rights and prospects at the workplace. They would also need to ascertain their unique skills and aptitudes and be clear about their professional goals and expectations. It is also advisable that they find mentors and learn from experience sharing, adapt their style to the needs of the organization, be forthcoming in terms of learning new skills in order to accept personal and professional challenges.”

A vital dependency of course, is the availability of various suitable positions. “Many ex-Wiproites do reach out to us and we welcome such women back depending on the availability of suitable positions,” says Cherian. On a slightly different note, says Aparna Ballakur, VP, HR, Yahoo! in India , “When we look at somebody’s resume and see a break in the career, we don’t kind of penalize people for that break, we treat them like anybody else and go through the process like anybody else when they come back.”

Most companies agree that they would prefer to reach out to their ex-employees (women included) as they are familiar with the ex-employees’ strengths and skills and this works well for the ex-employees as they too are familiar with the work culture of the organization. Some companies such as IBM India sound out their ex-women employees on available opportunities through online social media measures, ex-Alumni networks etc. The company had in fact, held an ex-women alumni meet last year on the International Women’s Day under the aegis of the India Women Leadership Council to attract ex-women alumni talent. Reaching Out to Women

This piece was originally published in Datauest

After the break

Corporate and urban India is home to nearly 100 million working women. Out of these, almost 70% take a career break due to various reasons. According to some estimates, there are almost 30 million women in urban India who wish to renter the workforce and build a career. Most of them feel ill-equipped and ill-supported to start again.

Clearly, the work-life choices that women have to make are not the same as men do. While the sociological aspect of the issue can be debated, the need to reconcile and respect the difference in choices exists. Preparing women for second careers means overcoming internal and external barriers. Internal ones include motivation, confidence, spouse support, family issues while external ones are flexible work opportunities, workplace resistance, mentoring/peer support.

Enabling environment

If comebacks are second careers, then they do need a certain amount of career support and induction. Psychologically, fresh career decisions are easy to make and unbridled. Second careers are harder, owing to uniqueness of situations and choices one has to make. The idea of investing in making a professional comeback is new to India.

Investment in support systems: A culture of investing in support systems — whether institutional or at  personal level — will help address a lot of micro issues that need to be addressed. Support systems may include care-giving infrastructure, tele-commuting support, small office, home office (SOHO) set-ups amongst others. A social investment in community care and support will also aid the cause.

 Corporate perspective

“There is a clear discontinuity on the work front in terms of consistency, commitment and ability to manage choices. The need to cultivate a clear perspective on choices made and supporting those choices can enhance (women’s) longevity in the workforce,” says Rakesh Shukla, managing director, The Writers Block, a technical communication firm that employs women in majority and often prefers to hire back-to-work women professionals. He adds that there is a perception that women are not committed to their careers. Therefore, companies display reluctance in hiring women after a break. If there were initiatives that help bridge the gaps of perception and reality, corporates would surely be more welcoming to women.

“Out of an average MBA batch of 100, there are 20-30% women, even lesser in engineering colleges. After a period of 5-8 years, less than 15% remain in the workforce. Women are very committed workers but I am not sure they are committed to themselves, their own (goals) and their careers. There is a need to build a culture of independence, assertiveness and preparedness — something that starts early on,” Shukla adds.

 Driving readiness

Women re-entering the workforce also implies being sensitive to their needs and choices. A change in choices or options often is sought with a need for flexibility — an imperative businesses are recognising now. The ‘workflex’ movement is steadily gaining acceptance in corporate India.

 Choices that women need to make, especially when opting out of the corporate structures, throw up a need to prepare and manage a different level of variables. There are few options that prepare women for making effective comebacks.

 Being able to make an effective comeback to work-life means managing various aspects — skills, confidence, preparedness, family support, health, support systems and an enhanced peer network.

 Readiness to stage effective comebacks also requires consistent go-to points, peer mentoring, support and relevant reskilling and training. Steps being taken in this direction include programmes like TATA Second Careers, while companies like Accenture, IBM, Shell etc are also taking initiative in this regard. The commitment will only grow stronger if there are initiatives with a long-term overarching perspective on the issue. Fleximoms 2nd Chance — Back to Work programme is one such step. However, to effectively make a long-term change, the space needs more catalysts and enablers, most significant of which are women themselves.

Priya Iyer, who made a successful comeback after attending a Back-to-Work programme organised by Fleximoms, says, “The programme was a huge learning experience. Not only did it inspire me to take the step, but also execute it. Today, I know that if one has clarity and support, one can do whatever they want to do. It does need planning and attention.”

 The bottom line is that there is value waiting to be extracted out of this talent pool. Companies that recognise this and respond to this change stand to benefit.

 This was originally published in HT Shine