Everything changes once women start families, but it doesn’t mean it has to be the end of their careers.
So says Saundarya Rajesh, founder and president of Avtar Career Creators, an India-based talent strategy consulting firm dedicated to helping women balance work and life through flexible work arrangements or “flexi-work.”
Citing a recent Avtar study in India, Rajesh says “18 percent of women who quit the workplace [left] and never returned.” Work-life balance was the key issue.
The benefits of flexi-work aren’t solely for mothers.
According to one U.K. study, companies that offer their staffs flexible working arrangements, such as working part time, job-sharing, telecommuting, or condensing or compressing their schedules, can see significant costs savings.
Work Wise U.K., a nonprofit dedicated to promoting changes in working practices through smarter working, calculates that when the cost of property, heating, lighting and other overhead costs are totaled, providing an employee with a desk averages about 7,000 pounds (or roughly $11,100) annually across the U.K. One in eight people or 3.5 million in the U.K. work from home.
Interviewed by The Independent, Phil Flaxton, chief executive of Work Wise U.K., said: “If you're a small business and you do away with five desks because people are not coming in five days a week or are sharing desks, you can potentially save 35,000 pounds ($55,500) a year. To a small business, that is significant.”
But changing the mind-set of corporations long used to standard work hours isn’t easy. Neither is changing the minds of women who have typically been resigned to abandoning their careers to motherhood.
Rajesh, an MBA grad with a budding career at Citibank, was forced to leave the workforce after getting married and having her first child. Leaving her child with family was not an option, and in India, “there’s this very clear mind-set [against] … leaving your child with day care,” she said during an interview at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 62nd Annual Conference & Exposition in San Diego in late June.
She says she tried to negotiate with her company to initiate a more flexible schedule, to no avail.
“So I quit and for the next four or five years it was a perennial quest to find a part-time job,” she continues. “I was an MBA [grad]. I had done good things. I would get job interviews and land good jobs, and they would say ‘full time’ and I would say ‘part time.’ ”
Eventually, Rajesh, a SHRM member, began teaching marketing, advertising and sales promotion at a women’s college where she found like-minded women in her same situation. It was there that she began a side career—trying to find job opportunities for her students. Successful with helping women find jobs, she recruited four of her friends to help expand her business. It has evolved into her company—a job candidate database, Avtar I-WIN—that matches women with flexible careers.
Avtar and Outlook Business surveyed 745 private-sector Indian employees in 2009. It found that 62 percent of respondents said they would consider quitting, taking a career break or switching to a company that had a flexible work option. The remaining 38 percent said they already had a flexi-work option.
Many companies are finding that when it comes to loss of employees, “companies weren’t losing them to better pay; they were losing them to their homes. They were losing them because adequate childcare was not available. These women were constrained by time and they did not have flexible working arrangements,” Rajesh said.
Those flexible working arrangements in India include but are not limited to:
Job-sharing or job-splitting.
Working from home.
Term-time working (working during the school year and taking time off during holidays to complement a child’s schedule).
“We realized that many companies were interested in [adopting flexi-work]: the intent was there, but implementing was hard, because there were job issues,” Rajesh said.
Avtar, which means reincarnation in Sanskrit, has had success in placing women in flexible jobs. But it has no competition, which Rajesh would appreciate.
“If there were more voices, more people talking about this, [employers] would want to do this,” she said. Avtar has three offices across India in Chennai, Bangalore and Coimbatore. With nearly 6,800 women in the database, it has been able to find job opportunities for about 30 percent of them since the company’s inception in 2005.
Part of the problem, however, is cultural, Rajesh admitted.
“There are women who still have the conditioning and value systems of previous generations,” she said. “Most have been brought up by stay-at-home moms and want to be there for their children. But in a woman’s career, spending four or five years bringing up children” and being out of the workforce can be detrimental.
However, “you shouldn’t look at a woman’s career in a linear way; she’s fantastic at collective leadership, emotional quotient of people, and multi-tasking and team management.”
All are skills, she said, that lend themselves well to flexi-work.
Aliah D. Wright is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
Rajesh discusses how women have influenced innovation in the workplace.
Workplace Flexibility, Advocacy Issues, August 2010
SHRM Urges Employers to Embrace Workplace Flexibility, HR News, July 2010
Workplace Flexibility Report Adds to National Debate, HR News, May 2010
Managers: Work Flexibility Doesn't Have to Be Scary, HR News, November 2007