A career break is no full stop

Feb 01 2008, 23:45 IST
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SummaryTo recharge cells and devote more time to family, a career break sounds wonderful for a woman but a return to the job market after a hiatus may not be a shoo-in.

To recharge cells and devote more time to family, a career break sounds wonderful for a woman but a return to the job market after a hiatus may not be a shoo-in. You suddenly realize you have missed the bus and your past work experience does not cut ice any more with today’s bosses. Worse is, the break could turn into a permanent one if you are not willing to start all over again at a few rungs lower on the hierarchical ladder — which is the reality at ground zero.

That’s what many working women today are realising. Promises like sabbaticals, flexi-timing and working from home may sound good on paper, and organisations may be touting them as gender-inclusive policies, but the ground reality is different. Maybe, that’s why more often than not, women in their late thirties and early forties are converting their career breaks into permanent ones, or choosing self-employment as an alternative. That could also be one of the reasons why just a few women exist in senior management positions—the choice is decidedly narrow when home chores and professional responsibilities reach a peak. Data show a sharp drop in the proportion of women employees in India Inc—from the entry level (50%) to the middle (30%) and senior management (8%).

“It’s hard to come back to work after a break. And the longer the break, the more difficult it is. It is definitely very difficult in the technology world, as technology changes very fast, and your skills may have become obsolete,” says Tavant Technologies co-founder and VP, Nita Goyal. Goyal herself took just a month’s break when her first child was born, and dared to take a six-month break three years later when her second came along. Agreeing that she has been one of the luckier ones, she acknowledges that not too many companies are sensitive about the dual responsibilities women face.

“It is important to strike a balance between your personal and professional life after rejoining work. It is important for a woman to prioritise things as they do have to fulfill their commitment at the personal front. If you can balance out things properly, you can easily fulfill your requirements at work and at home,” says Vandana Khosla, creative director, Elvy Lifestyle.

A Confederation of Indian Industry study in 2005 found that although women make up about half of the population in India, they only comprise 6% of the workforce. In addition, at the senior management level at domestic Indian companies, women only constitute about 4% of the total workforce. Also, many of the women employees interviewed said companies did not give enough time for maternity leave and almost no company offered flexible work schedules or office daycare facilities for new mothers.

“A career break does take one behind by a few years in the succession chart. Even progressive organisations, with women-friendly policies, find it difficult to assure the same career growth as would have happened to a woman employee if she had not taken a break. A woman employee, especially if she is very good, would legitimately expect to be pegged at the same level as her peers, so far as career growth is concerned,” reasons Ajay Kumar, general manager, HRD, Becton Dickinson India. For an organisation then to deliver this becomes difficult, considering the employee would not have worked for a couple of years in between while on break. However, if she comes back, and stays on in the organisation, there is every chance she will be able to make up for this and grow to her potential. And this is where the women-friendly policies come into play, he points out.

Becton Dickinson recently introduced its career break policy explicitly with the aim of fostering work life balance mostly among women associates, promote professional development and in the process provide associates some time out to revitalise and energise themselves. It allows associates who have completed four years of service with BD to take a two-year break from work for reasons related to maternity and adoption, pursuing higher studies, and joining one’s spouse in his/her location of posting. “With a steady rise in the number of women professionals we believe this policy will equip us in providing flexibility and retaining women associates in the future,” says Kumar. Ten per cent of BD-India’s managerial workforce comprises women associates. PricewaterhouseCoopers is one of those companies that have seen women re-entering the workforce. “However, the number of women taking career breaks has gone down in the last decade because of a number of reasons including economic reasons, women wanting a ‘career’’ rather than a ‘job’, companies offering the option of working out of home and so on,” says Rachna Nath, executive director, PwC. Nath points out that in today’s economy, specially in the sectors that are booming, with the eternal manpower resource crunch, a comeback is not as difficult as it would have been 5-6 years back. “Companies, in fact, are running programmes for attracting women who have taken breaks and luring them by giving the option of working out of home. The only compromise probably is the time you spend with your family,” she says.

Agrees Shoba Chetty, director, HR, Impetus Technologies, “We believe that giving time-off facilitates fresher outlooks, new perspective and enthusiasm in the workplace. It also helps the employee balance his/her priorities without the stress of having to look for another job or worrying about their career. We have had female employees re- entering the workforce after a career break owing to reasons like family/children, marriage, education, travel, etc. though quantifying the same is difficult.”

Women employees account for around 30% of the total workforce in the IT industry. As per an industry survey, it is expected to go up to 45% in the year 2010. At Impetus also, women employees make up a little over 30% of the total strength. At the managerial level, the percentage is 15% and three of very critical functions, research & development, HR and marketing and communications are headed by women employees.

Says its associate director, marketing and communications, Pooja Sehgal Bansal, “I feel that coming back after a career break is a lot like joining your first job, but without the apprehensions.” She goes on to say that her break gave her a chance to evaluate her team’s performance and decision making abilities in her absence even better.

“In fact, we do not have any bias against an employee who might decide to take a break for personal reasons. We take pride in the fact that the employee decided to stay on with us. This is a reflection of the employee’s belief and faith in us as an organisation, and a manifestation of the strong bond we have with our employees,” says Chetty.

While not too many HR managers think like that, a change in attitude is graduallybeing noticed among private companies.

In the new economy sectors, as well as services sector, which are not bogged down by the traditional mindset and are grappling with a manpower crunch, women employees are much sought after. And, along with that, come policies and attitudes which are more gender-friendly. What now remains to be seen, is to what extent such policies translate into reality.

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