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Back to work

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Returning to work after a career break is challenging, but not impossible. An intensive re-entry conference shows women the way. Ronita Torcato reports

“Gender diversity is just a buzzword for corporates," says P. Bharadwaj wearily, a power-dressed mother of two during the coffee break at RestartHer 2018, India’s largest conference and career fair for women returners organised by JobsForHer, an online portal for women on  a career break. "They don't want to accommodate unemployed women. What they want is women who can quickly ditch an old employer for a new one".

 Other women exchanging notes in the Nehru Centre at the day-long  Mumbai edition of the Bengaluru-based  portal’s flagship event, narrated similar tales of woe. What comes through clearly are the biases women returners face in terms of gender, age and lack of recent experience. Their long stints as 'home-makers' are given short shrift. For centuries, the drudgery of domestic chores has been a woman's lot. Housework, like child rearing and care-giving, continues  to be unpaid. But women don’t take credit for it like men do; men who grandly announce to all and sundry that they've  washed the dishes or clothes (in machines if you please).   Most people talk in laudatory terms of husbands who ‘help’ their wives. Why is this ‘help’ and not a shared job?

"It's their duty, part of the shared responsibility of raising a family," Dr Ranjan Banerjee, Dean and Professor-Marketing, S.P.Jain Institute of Management and Research  says, adding "Women have not taken a break from work, women have only taken a break from the workplace. Because women are working at home, raising children, negotiating with in-laws... Don't let society determine your self-worth. All respect starts with yourself." Women never talk about ‘helping’ with housework, usually labelled ‘household production’ by economists. (See box on left.)

So, while men who share domestic chores see themselves as helpers, women are assumed to be unambitious Luddites (meaning technologically averse). Fortunately, some companies  are better than others when it comes to supporting women's return to the workforce. They were all there at Restarter 2018—too many to name—either as sponsors or providing panels as well as mentors and career experts for curated workshops to aid women returnees to advance their career trajectories.

What do women (in Mumbai at least) want in the process of restarting their careers?

As it became apparent at the conference, they seek flexible working hours, reskilling and mentoring opportunities in order to regain their financial independence.

"Flexibility," Dr Banerjee says, "can be given for output. Don't look at the hours. Look at the output. Because there are people who look busy only at the end of the day."

Admittedly, some are shirkers, while others don't have deep pockets, having only worked part-time. Mercifully, opportunities exist for flexible part-time work whether in banking, technology, engineering, marketing, or human resources.  But why assume, as many managers do, that women returners only want to work part-time?

Since many are nudging 50 (or even their mid-forties)  they are also perceived as  slow learners. Says Amita Gandia, CEO of Avanse Financial  Services Ltd, "Age is in your mind. What matters is the value you add to your stakeholder.  Networking is important. It gives you the power of multiplying. However, Indians as a community are not wired to network."

Which is why Wharton School alumna Neha Bagaria set up JobsForHer and is its Founder and CEO. (See box below.)

Bagaria's RestartHer endeavours to give women the necessary tools, confidence and connections to help them return to work. Several large corporates, Small Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and startups set up booths at the Career Fair to offer participants just such an opportunity.  There were companies recruiting women across industries ranging from banking, technology, FMCG, operations, healthcare, and education in areas ranging from marketing, sales, and software development, to HR and writing, across experience levels ranging from two to 20 years and in job types from full-time, part-time, work-from-home, freelance as well as returnee programs.

The listed panels included Jeremy James, Associate Director, Human Resources, Accenture Operations, Accenture, Mahalakshmi R., Director Human Resources, India, Mondelez International, Preeti Gupta, Group Executive President – Group Human Resources, Aditya Birla Group, Rohit Gupte, Senior Director, A.P. Moller-Maersk, Maersk GSC, Farah Nathani, Co-founder, The Mumum Co, Harish Bhatt - Brand Custodian, Tata Sons, and  Madhavi Lall - MD and Head Human Resources, India, Deutsche Bank, Bansuri Datta of A Great Place to Work, Vibha Kagzi of ReachIvy.com, Swati Bhat of Learning Curve, Tanvi Bhatt, a leading personal branding and public speaking coach and Anuradha Ganpathy, Director and Country Head, Human Resources, Credit Suisse Group, who stresses the importance of experience above (automative) process inasmuch as human skills are the ones valued most for being irreplaceable.

Participating in RestartHer, the learned panels  educated women on family-friendly and flexible work arrangements. SJPIMR's Ranjan Banerjee advises women to "help people, stay in touch and maintain interests. And take up a part-time job while reskilling."

A woman delegate in the audience shared her travails, “seeking employment after having been away from the workplace for 16 years and I now find it's all about reskilling and reskilling if one wants to rejoin the workforce." For women like her, the  workshops guided them on ways to navigate changes in the industry through various interventions in soft skills such as confidence-building as well as hard skills such as data analytics.

Shalini Nataraj, Global HR Head, Maersk, GSC, says, “Our Back2Work career transition program is exclusively for women on a break. Maersk invests in bringing back women returnees  as full-time equivalent resources at mid to senior management levels. Additionally, we have other initiatives that help women discover their personal brand, leadership style, and thereby maximise their full potential while striking a balance between their personal and professional personas.”

At the end of the day, women delegates left with connections with interested employers, knowledge of strategies for their return to work and a network of peers. And as a panelist succinctly summed it, "Apart from breast-feeding, there is no other role which is gender-specific. Everything else is a social  construct." HURRAH! If this doesn't bring more optimism, more confidence and more energy to a woman, what will?

The entrepreneur

Neha Bagaria  is an alumna of Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania,  where she founded her first company Paragon to introduce the Advanced Placement Program to Indian students. Marriage brought her to Bangalore and Kemwell Biopharma, where despite  substantial career progression, she decided to take a sabbatical  to focus on motherhood. In this time, she became aware of the difficulties that most women face when they want to rejoin the workforce. So, the entrepreneur create JobsForHer.  Since its launch on March 8, 2015, several candidates have been hired in various corporates. Bagaria considers Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook and the author of Lean In) truly inspirational, and her two children to be the biggest source of joy.

What do women want?

JobsForHer conducted a series of online surveys on what women in India were looking for while restarting their careers and it was found that 34% of the women in Mumbai want to regain their financial independence in one survey titled, What is The Primary Motive For Restarting Your Career? Another 29% mentioned they were seeking self-worth, 28% want to re-engage their skills and experience and 9% want to be good role models for their children. In the survey titled What Can Companies Do To Enable Your Restart? 30% were looking to be reskilled, 10% asked that recruiters be sensitised to women returnees, 9% wanted to be paired up with buddies and 51% Mumbaikars responded that they were looking at flexibility in timing and location. Fifty-four per cent of the women saw mentoring as crucial to their restart, in the survey on How Important is Mentoring To You and in the last survey named What Would Make You Decline A Job Offer?, the recorded results were lack of flexibility (33%), travel time (34%), pay cut (19%) and lowered responsibility (14%).

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