The social entrepreneur, and founder & president of Avtar Career Creators, shares with Sushila Ravindranath that the government has to work hand-in-hand with both large and small companies, including SMEs, to create the right atmosphere to get women into employment, especially those who are looking to work after a break.
Saundarya Rajesh is an award-winning social entrepreneur, best known as the pioneer of second career opportunities for women in corporate India. She has been recognised as among the “100 Women Achievers,” instituted by the ministry of women and child development, and is also listed in the United Nations’ “Women Transforming India” list.
After stints in banking and teaching, she set up Avtar Career Creators, a regular recruitment consulting firm, in 2000, which now has operations across India. Five years down the line, in 2005, Saundarya launched Avtar I-Win (Avtar Indian Women professionals Interface Network), as an exclusive service to manage the careers of women who had taken a break due to work-life reasons. “I started my company as I took a few years off after my first child was born, and wanted to help women re-enter the workspace,” she says.
It is a pre-monsoon, humid afternoon, and we are meeting at Little Italy, the vegetarian Italian restaurant in the Besant Nagar area of Chennai. It’s a convenient location for both of us. Saundarya’s office is on Chennai’s East Coast Road, and she doesn’t have the time to come to the city centre. It is also an ideal place for two vegetarians who like Italian food.
We ask for lemon iced tea as we look at the menu. We decide to share bruschetta al pomodoro, as the portions are large. As we are waiting for our food, she tells me that when she set up I-Win, as many as 2,000 women registered. “I wanted to make sure that all of them had taken a break. We called all the 2,000 for an interview.”
She adds that the corporate sector was reluctant to look at the CVs of women on career breaks. “I had to approach the problem differently. I convinced the HR heads that women who had taken breaks were more likely to stay on the career track longer, and were also, in most cases, highly skilled. The idea struck a chord and some of the companies decided to try out my suggestion. The very first recorded instance of a ‘second career’ programme in Indian industry took place in July 2006, when over 400 women re-entered the workplace,” she adds. “We have, so far, managed to place 35,000 women and have counselled 3-4 lakh women. Apart from counselling sessions, we do career-entry programmes, skill building and networking sessions, second career as well as early career recruitment.” Avtar-I Win has an employee strength of 75.
For the main course, we decide to share minestrone soup, Mexican rice and vegetable quesadilla. We end up ordering Mexican food, instead of Italian. While we were planning to have salad also, but yielded to temptation.
She adds: “When we talk about women in the workplace, we mean women working in large companies in the organised sector. Their numbers are small. Even these companies don’t understand that inclusion and diversity are different. They think that inclusion is the right thing to do because everybody is doing it. Very few leaders look at it as project management. Nor do they understand the immense benefits that diversity brings. They don’t realise that home and work need to be integrated.”
As our food arrives, Saundarya says there is a huge data gap regarding working women. “Companies do not have proper information, nor do they benchmark their work in the gender parity area. There is no central repository of data for best practices,” she says.
Saundarya’s work is research-based. When she realised there were no real reference points, she launched the Best Companies for Women in India (BCWI) study in 2016, in association with the US-based Working Mother Media. The study has been done for 32 years in the US.
BCWI has had three very successful runs to become the most comprehensive gender analytics exercise for corporate India. The study reveals that the current attrition rate of women at very senior levels is 4%—half of men’s attrition rate at the same level, which is 8%. With extremely volatile talent markets, this goes on to show that companies that invest in developing and growing women into leadership are more likely to retain their talent. While the promotion rates for women and men at senior levels are at par, men are more likely to be promoted to mid-management levels. It also reveals a worrying trend of hiring of women dipping by 2.5% between 2017 and 2018. These figures relate to women working in large, well-known companies. “We still don’t have proper numbers about women in the unorganised sector. About 80% of women in the labour force are occupied in agriculture. Small and medium enterprises hire only 22 lakh women. These are the official figures,” she says.
We decide not to have dessert, but instead try double espresso. “Did you know that SMEs have stopped hiring women,” she says. “The government means well, but some of their schemes to help women do more harm than good. The increase in the period of maternity leave, to six months, sounds good on paper. For large organisations, this is like preaching to the converted as they already do this. But it does not work for SMEs, and they have stopped hiring women and skilling them.”
She gives the example of a small tailoring unit that has, say, 40 women working in it, and says that women employees claiming six months of maternity leave is not viable for the unit. “They end up hiring women on contract basis.”
She adds that there is a strong business case for hiring women in SMEs. “There is less absenteeism, less alcoholism, less abrasive unionism, if they employ women. There is a lot of scope for women in precision-based assembly work.”
As the coffee arrives, she suggests that the government starts incentivising employers to hire women. “In countries like Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Singapore, employers of women can claim subsidy. A small tax break for hiring entry-level women can be an incentive. The government has to work hand-in-hand with large and small units to create the right atmosphere to get women into employment, especially those who are looking to work after a break,” she says.
As Saundarya is rushing back to work, she tells me that she has been working on her book “The 99 Day Diversity Challenge,” which is about creating an inclusive workplace. It is being released this month. “All our learning must be leveraged to create the maximum impact for the largest audience. My book is one such effort,” she says.