A 2013 study, On-Ramps And Up-Ramps India, showed that 36% of women who join the workforce drop out and a whopping 75% leave for reasons related to childcare. The study, conducted by the Center for Talent Innovation, a New York-based think tank that designs policies for enhancing work-life balance, also found that 91% of those who drop out want to return, but only 58% make it back to full-time, mainstream jobs.
Is getting back to work after a career break that difficult? What does it really take to stage a comeback?
We spoke to four women who share their own stories of opting out of the workforce or slowing down post-childbirth, only to bounce back and emerge stronger, balancing their personal and professional lives and taking their careers to greater heights.
Keep in touch
Revati Kasture, chief general manager at credit rating agency CARE Ratings, Mumbai, took a five-year break from a professionally satisfying job after childbirth. She had completed seven years as a professional. Kasture acknowledges that in a fast-moving, dynamic world, a comeback was not easy. She joined CARE Ratings at the age of 35. It required some amount of reskilling since she moved from banking to the ratings business.
She attributes her successful return to the fact that she did not take a complete sabbatical. She taught financial management and cost accounting in two colleges as a visiting faculty member, which helped her keep in touch with the subject, engage with people and, more importantly, remain intellectually stimulated and updated on developments in the industry. “A complete dissociation with the industry could feed self-doubts, making a comeback challenging. If you stay connected, the industry accepts you,” she says.
Rajashree Nambiar, chief executive officer (CEO) of financial services company India Infoline Finance Ltd, had been working for eight years and was managing a multinational-bank branch when she decided to slow down to enjoy motherhood, voluntarily taking on a role away from the mainstream for a couple of years. The smaller role allowed her more time with her baby.
Did this move affect her career? “Not really. This was just a small speck in the broader spectrum of the overall career,” she says.
Developing and nurturing a strong support system at home is the key. “I was lavish in investing time, money, respect and affection on my maid of 18 years who has been a solid support in bringing up my son,” says Nambiar.
Sangeeta Purushottam, co-founder and managing partner at consulting services firm Cogito Advisors, admits that the first few years after childbirth involved a tightrope walk. There were moments of frustration, when the maid would take leave without notice, or the children would fall sick, for instance, when she would ask herself—“Why am I doing this? Is it really worth it?” The trick, she says, lies in sticking it out. And it became a lot easier as the children grew up, says Purushottam.
Both Kasture and Purushottam also credit their spouses for being part of a formidable support system. “My husband is my rock-solid support—he has always partnered equally with me in both housekeeping as well as childcare; and my parents have been our backbone and support system at all times,” reiterates Kasture.
Plan and prioritize
As personal and professional time boundaries blur in a highly connected business environment, it is imperative to prioritize tasks dynamically and optimize time through judicious planning. “I have always planned and scheduled both my work and personal time, setting myself phone reminders for important activities, planning my menus a week in advance and utilizing my commute time for connecting and socializing with professional and personal associates,” says Kasture.
Purushottam adds: “Since it was imperative for me to reach home at a certain time, I was extremely organized and focused at work. There was a time when I worked four days a week, but my delivery was equivalent to five days’ work.”
The importance of connecting and engaging with people to build a supportive workplace ecosystem too cannot be overemphasized. “I have found plenty of opportunity to reach out to people and build relationships during office hours without having to attend after-office, over-the-drinks networking. Nor have I really felt excluded from the so-called ‘old boys club’ or felt that the men have had an undue career advantage over me,’” says Kasture.
Darshana Ogale, senior vice-president at Capgemini India, a technology solutions provider, says volunteering for forums and initiatives like training and diversity engagements outside her direct scope of work have given her not just visibility, but also opportunities to meet and connect with people and build a network. And this has stood her in good stead all through her career.
“I have never had the luxury of time to hang out with people after work. You need to deliver consistently above expectations for this not to be a disadvantage,” says Purushottam. She has been working for around 31 years.
Step out of your comfort zone
Ogale took up a career in computing after an eight-year sabbatical post-childbirth. She had been a trainee with Siemens for a year before she had a baby; she used her sabbatical to learn some programming languages and started with data processing assignments, working from home. She then moved on to working part-time in an office before returning to the mainstream, and never looked back. The experience helped her broaden her skills and develop into a well-rounded professional.
“It pays to enhance your learning graph and inculcate new skills through openness to opportunities outside your core area and taking a differentiated path. Be steadfast in your goals, constantly stretching your comfort zone and leveraging your vast and possibly unknown potential,” she suggests.
Don’t feel guilty
Remember that trying to juggle many things and seeking perfection in every area is not always possible. “There was a time when I was killing myself trying to live up to other people’s expectations. I was on a perpetual guilt trip as I constantly felt that I was being judged by the way I brought up my children, kept my house or hosted guests,” says Purushottam.
This is validated by research from the University of the Basque Country, published in 2009 in the Spanish Journal Of Psychology. It found that women feel significantly more guilty than men because while men externalize faults, women tend to internalize them. “Once I learnt to work by my own yardstick, the pressure eased and things worked better,” adds Purushottam.
Nambiar says she believes that the quality of interaction with children is far more important than being available to them 24x7. “A self-reliant, responsible and educated mother is likely to provide a better quality of interaction. And children grow up to be proud of you and your achievements,” says Nambiar.
Finally, it’s important to remain resolute in your goals and reinforce your self-belief. That is what helps you to create a balance.
Charu Sabnavis is a learning and organizational development facilitator and founder director of Delta Learning.