As gender diversity becomes a key focus for companies in India, one key question is how to encourage women who have taken career breaks to return to work.
Women made up just 23 percent of India's labor force in 2019, compared with a global average of 48 percent, according to World Bank data. A large number of women in India drop out of the corporate workforce to raise children, care for 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 the workforce.
"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. In 2018, his firm launched Udaan, a program designed to hire women who have been on a career break.
Airbus launched a similar program in India last year called Fly Again. Tata Group, Accenture, IBM and Amazon are among other companies that have created such programs. One business school in the country offers an MBA program to train women who have been on a career break.
Many other companies are open to hiring women who have been out of the workforce for years, but they don't have specific programs in place.
The case for having more women in an organization has widely been established. Among other things, it helps drive financial performance and innovation. In addition, women who want to return to work represent a motivated talent pool that 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 in Bengaluru, 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 for senior roles, such as directors or vice presidents, which is lacking in India. Studies show that female leaders 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," she said. Her company aims to have women make up at least one-third of the leadership team.
Programs targeting returning women are typically of two types: internships or 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 employees can decide whether the job is a good fit given their personal situation, such as raising children or caring for aging parents.
Since 2016, Godrej, one of India's largest conglomerates, has been running its Careers 2.0 program, which hires women for short-term projects that require 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 and 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."
While there isn't any guarantee of a full-time job at the end of the project, Kohli said at least 30 percent of the arrangements lead to career opportunities. These include roles in HR, communications design and corporate communications, she said.
Bagaria recommended that internship or short-term project work should start with flexible hours and then 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 invites 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 them acclimate to the workplace.
Garg said Publicis Sapient provides training if the incoming candidate requests it. The firm plans to relaunch a campaign this year to advertise its Spring program, which looks to hire women who have been on a career break.
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Essentials for Success
The following characteristics can help make these initiatives successful:
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," Mehta said.
The launch of Mahindra Logistics' Udaan program for returning women was an outcome of company leaders having created a council for diversity and inclusion several years ago.
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 it has several policies aimed at offering a female-friendly workplace. In the last year, the firm hired several women who had been on career breaks, according to Amitava Saha, president of HR. "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," he said.
3. Loose role requirements. Managers planning to hire returning women shouldn't be too rigid about 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," Kohli said.
Instead, the line manager and recruiter should work together to see what time and training needs to be invested, so that the employment relationship 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," Saha said. 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," Garg added.
5. Training for managers. Line managers need to receive training so they aren't inadvertently ruling out women looking to return to work.
Bagaria gave the example of a company where top management was committed to bringing on women, including those who had been on career breaks. But when a female candidate went in for an interview, the recruiting manager only asked about her missing years, not her skills. "Biases usually run deep," Bagaria said.
6. Fair treatment. "It is very important for returning women employees to feel secure, and [for there to be] a certain amount of performance-based transparency in the system when they come back," Saha said.
Shefali Anand is a New Delhi-based journalist and former correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. You can follow her on Twitter.