Bringing Women Back to Work After Career Breaks in India

By Shefali Anand February 17, 2020
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As gender diversity becomes a key focus for companies in India, one key question is how to encourage women to stay at work? 

Women comprised just 23% of India's labor force in 2019, compared with a global average of 48%, according to World Bank data. A large number of women in India drop out of the corporate workforce to raise children, provide care to elderly family members and other reasons. If they want to return to work after being away for years, they often face rejection from recruiters who look down on their gap years.

To change this situation, some companies have launched programs to attract women back to work after a career break.

"This is a talent pool that was just waiting to be tapped," said Mehernosh Mehta, vice president and head of HR at Mahindra Logistics in Mumbai. His firm launched 'Udaan' in 2018, a program to hire women who have been on a career break. 

Airbus launched a similar program in India last year, titled 'Fly Again'. Tata Group, Accenture, IBM and Amazon are among other companies which have created such programs. One business school in the country even offers an MBA program to train women who have been on a career break.

To be sure, these 'returnee' programs are relatively new. There are many companies that are open to hiring women after a years'-long break, but don't have specific programs in place.

The landscape of programs for returning women is growing, and these efforts offer guidelines on how to execute them successfully.

The Rationale:

The case for having more women in an organization has widely been established, including that it helps drive financial performance and innovation. In addition, women who want to return to work present a ready talent pool which can be brought up to speed with training and support.

"They have a fire in the belly to prove themselves," said Neha Bagaria, chief executive of JobsForHer.com, a job-search website founded to help returning women seek employment.

Getting these women back in the system also helps build a high-quality pipeline of women in senior roles, such as directors or vice presidents, which is lacking in India. Studies show that having women in leadership can help a company's business performance. On the other hand, all-male leadership teams are increasingly being questioned by potential employees and even customers.

"It's a huge, huge change," said Shefali Garg, Gurgaon-based senior director of people strategy at Publicis Sapient, a digital transformation company.  "People have seen value in how a diverse leadership team helps," said Garg. Her company has a goal of growing its leadership team to be at least one-third women.

The Structure:

Programs targeting returning women are typically of two types - internships/short-term projects and full-time jobs. In the first model, women are brought on board for a short period or project to determine their skills and provide an opportunity for training and career exploration. At the same time, the women employees can decide whether they can manage the job given their personal situation, such as raising children or caring for aging parents.

Godrej, one of India's largest conglomerates, has been running the Careers 2.0 program since 2016, which takes on women for short-term projects working either part-time or full-time hours.

"Usually when women come back from a break, their confidence levels are low," said Shefali Kohli, group head of  rewards, diversity & people analytics at Godrej in Mumbai.

Through Careers 2.0, "they get time to just get comfortable with the fact that they know the skills," said Kohli.

While there isn't any guarantee of a full-time job at the end of the project, Kohli says at least 30% lead to career opportunities. These include roles in HR, communications design and corporate communications, she said.

Bagaria of JobsForHer recommends that internship or short-term project work should start with flexible hours, but should be ramped up to the schedule and work required from a full-time job.

Some companies look to take on women for full-time roles and provide them support to ease into those jobs. Airbus India invited job applications through its 'Fly Again' program for positions as engineers and project managers. Returning candidates are provided upskilling, as well as a mentor or buddy to help fit in.

At Publicis Sapient, Garg said they provide training if required by the incoming candidate. "If you're competent, then only you'll come in," said Garg. The firm plans to relaunch a campaign this year to advertise its 'Spring' program that targets hiring women who have been on a career break.

The Essentials for Success:

1. Commitment of leadership - Programs for returning women can succeed only when the company's top leadership pushes for gender diversity. "It should become an organizational priority, where all the leaders feel that this is something we should do," said Mehta of Mahindra Logistics. Several years ago, the company created a council for Diversity and Inclusion led by the company's leaders, and one of the outcomes was the launch of its program 'Udaan' for returning women.

2. Company branding - Women are more likely to apply to companies that have favorable policies for women, so organizations should be making it known that they welcome women who have been on a break.

Biocon, a biopharmaceutical firm headquartered in Bengaluru, doesn't have a specific program for returning women but has several policies to provide a conducive workplace for women. In the last year, the firm hired several women who had been on career breaks, according to Amitava Saha, president HR, Biocon. "It's important for organizations to create that kind of social standing for the organization which promotes women employees and provides a very safe, secure environment," said Saha.

3. Loosen role requirements - Managers planning to hire returning women should give leeway for the experience or skills required of the incoming candidate.

"We can't have a very tight skill set matrix in which if three things out of the eight don't match, I'm not hiring them," said Kohli of Godrej.

Instead, the line manager and recruiter should work together to see what time and training needs to be invested, so that the hire benefits both the company and the candidate.

4. Conducive policies - Companies should create an enabling architecture and processes to accommodate returning women.

"There have to be policies and practices to enable them that soft entry, allow them to settle in, and then they can regrow into that role," said Saha. These typically include policies that provide flexibility in working hours or work location.

"Most organizations are moving toward a culture where they support the life changes of not just women but also men, so that people are able to continue in the organization for a longer period of time," said Garg.

5. Sensitization on the ground - Line managers and members of a team where a returning woman could join should be sensitized to her situation.

Bagaria of JobsForHer gives the example of a company where top management was committed to bringing on women even if they had been on career breaks. But when the candidate went for an interview, the recruiting manager only asked about her missing years, not her skills. "Biases usually run deep," said Bagaria.

6. Fair treatment - "It is very important for returning women employees to feel secure, and a certain amount of performance-based transparency in the system when they come back," said Saha.


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