Most return-to-work programs aimed at women professionals fall short of expectations.

Returning to work after maternity Three ways corporates can make it better for womenImage for representation
Atom Maternity Monday, October 16, 2017 - 14:42

Corporate India has been championing several returning women professional programs in the last two years and a lot of money is being spent on advertising, organizing events and recruitment drives to attract candidates. In this period I have met several women, many of them good friends and members of my networking group, who have got back to work after long sabbaticals and many more who are aggressively trying to get their professional lives re-started.

Based on my experience, it appears that most return-to-work programs aimed at women professionals may fall short of expectations. While considerable efforts are put to attract candidates, is the same amount of effort being put to ensure they fit well into the work place? How are other employees being sensitized to work with returning mothers? Most importantly, what psychological support is being given to the ladies to balance the pressures of motherhood and professional life?

Let me illustrate this through three distinct challenges a returning women professional tends to face when she embarks on her second career.

A changed workplace

India is changing at an unprecedented pace and working professionals have a lot to cope with.  At the work place, there are significant changes, starting with the software tools used to get the job done. A friend told me the biggest challenge of returning to work after six years of break was dealing with a new interface for Microsoft Office. She was expected to learn on the job, which she eventually did at the cost of denting her confidence.

Secondly, with the proliferation of automated tools one would expect humans would be working less. But media reports indicate otherwise. The 8 hour working day is over. Ten to twelve hour days are the norm. Add two hours of commute (especially in a city like Bangalore) and a working woman barely has any time with her family post work. And looking for a workplace closer to one’s home is easier said than done even for non-returning professionals.

Also, four years ago most technology companies offered shuttle/ or cab services for employees. These have, to a large extent, been replaced with Uber, Ola and other cab services. Similarly, cafeterias used to be the primary source of food for working professionals. Now it’s Swiggy. However, these conveniences can be costly and a returning woman professional, who already spends a bomb on child care and domestic help, may be left with even lesser money at hand at the end of the month, demotivating her.

Gaining support from colleagues

In my first job as a manager, I asked my team and my then boss for a knowledge transfer of what had been previously done at the company. I got a verbal response – nothing has been done. Obviously, that was a lie as I would discover later (There was a dedicated team of four members and I hunted down my predecessor to ask her about it. She wasn’t very forthcoming.) I went on to build that division from scratch and doggedly maintained records of everything we did - close to 1TB at the time of my leaving.

For a returning mother the prospect of building something from scratch can be scary because her last job was several years ago. Her reference points are likely outdated and suggesting them to her new manager or team could foster disrespect for her abilities.

Another friend found herself managing a bunch of millennials – none of who kept her informed of what they did at work, despite requests and pleas. Feeling alienated, she cried in office one day and didn’t want to go back to the job. With both my friends, their managers did not want them to feel isolated but didn’t know what they could do to get more support from colleagues.

Balancing professional KPIs with Motherhood/ Family KPIs

When women professionals return to work post an innings managing their family and home, they are expected to make arrangements so life will go on seamlessly for other family members, especially children and the elderly.

However, few families proactively put a support system in place – babysitter, cook, and other domestic help – to encourage the woman to find a job. As a result the domestic support staff recruitment begins only after the job offer has been accepted and a joining date confirmed. In many cases, this can be a couple of weeks, leaving little time for the family or the woman to adjust to the new arrangement. As a result the returning woman professional is constantly worrying about family while at work. Is the 7 year old respecting the babysitter’s instructions or acting out? Has the mother-in-law dismissed the maid due to some perceived shoddiness? No wonder most women who join back work ask for a work from home option, which isn’t available in most organizations for new employees.

A friend once told me about how a young mother was driven to quitting months after she joined back post maternity leave because of her husband guilt tripping her over her inability to care for their child. Her team had done everything to make her feel worthy and capable, but she let had them down due to her inability to balance motherhood and professional life.

While I don’t deny that returning women need to embrace these challenges and find a way out on their own, it is equally important for organizations to be cognizant of these challenges and develop support systems at the work place to specifically help returning women professionals.

Unfortunately the numbers indicating that aren’t encouraging. Globally only 40% of returning women professionals manage to stay in their jobs full time. In India it appears only 20% of returning women professionals may get employed, going by the statistics provided by a recruitment firm.

Someone once likened a returning woman professional’s life to that of a convict. Both are looking for an opportunity to enrich their lives. However, if their experiences in the outside world are negative, they would both be driven to despair and a lifetime feeling caged.

The author is a Marketing and Operations Leader. She also runs the Women Leaders of Sarjapur Road, a Lean In Circle, focused on providing networking and knowledge sharing opportunities to women professionals. Views expressed are personal.

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