For those of you who thought Marissa Mayer wouldn’t be able to handle being a new mother and CEO, it’s time to eat your words. Less than a month after her return from a two-week blink-and-miss maternity leave, the Yahoo CEO has announced several aggressive moves to turn around the troubled company. Yahoo has also posted some pretty promising first-quarter results under her watch. Clearly Mayer means to prove the naysayers wrong.
No doubt, though, one little misstep will set those tongues wagging again, speculating whether women are up for motherhood and work at the same time.
At 37, Mayer is the youngest CEO to head a Fortune 500 company. In appointing her, Yahoo created history. Not very often does a pregnant woman get the top job. But will she be, as many would like to believe, a game changer for working women across the globe?
Gazing at the line-up of women leaders in corporate India, one may have some reason to hope. “When I started my career about 25 years ago, motherhood mostly meant an end to careers for women,” says Mumbai-based Meera Sanyal, chairperson and country executive (India), The Royal Bank of Scotland Group. “Today, it is not so. We are trying to create a supportive culture through flexi-time and reduced work weeks. But I believe we still have a long way to go.
“The banking and financial services sector has seen the presence of more women on top than any other industry,” Sanyal adds. “In fact, women CEOs in this space among private and foreign banks would almost outnumber men. However, scaling the ladder continues to be a big challenge for women across most industries.”
Reports show just how big a challenge this can be. Deloitte’s November 2011 report, “Women in the Boardroom: A Global Perspective”, showed that of the 1,112 directorships of 100 companies listed on the Bombay Stock Exchange, just 5.3% were held by women. India’s biggest competitor, China, had more women in the boardroom—the figure for that country was 8.5%.
"In our country, and in many other countries, women carry the load of social responsibilities. Many women willingly opt out of the active working force due to social pressure."
Earlier this year a Grant Thornton International Business Report, “Women in Senior Management: Still Not Enough”, gave a global perspective on women in top jobs. With just 14% representation, India is followed by Germany (13%) and Japan (5%). Russia, Botswana, Philippines and Thailand lead the way. Interestingly, at 17%, the US fares just somewhat better. Clearly even for the US, Mayer’s elevation is a landmark moment.
“Here, if you are pregnant you won’t be hired easily,” points out a Mumbai-based headhunter who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Why would someone hire you knowing that you will be on leave after six months? When I interview women candidates I ask them upfront about their plans to start a family.”
It’s not just the companies that are reluctant. “Internationally, attitudes are very different,” says Mumbai-based K. Sudarshan, managing partner of global executive search firm EMA Partners International. “We had a client from South Africa who was in an advanced stage of pregnancy and she was open to relocating to another country soon after the baby was born. It’s an attitude I don’t see so much here where attitudes are still traditional. Here women tend to withdraw their candidature the moment they realize they are expecting. They would rather stay in a company where they are already working so they can try and negotiate for greater flexibility at work.”
It’s what may happen after the baby comes that explains some of the reluctance to hire a pregnant woman. There is this concern that she may be unable to do justice to the demands of a full-time job. “Companies invest in these individuals,’’ says Sudarshan, “and they start paying back two-three years later and then these concerns do come up.”
Most companies now offer three-six months of paid maternity leave, with the option of extending it up to a year without salary. However it’s the lack of support and options thereafter, when it is most required, that makes it difficult for women to continue working.
An Accenture report, “The Path Forward: International Women’s Day 2012 Global Research Results”, found that 64% of women held flexible work schedules as the main reason for continuing to work. “The maternity leave is not enough,” says a Mumbai-based senior journalist who spoke on condition of anonymity. She quit her job with a leading English news channel recently, within six months of returning from her maternity leave. Like banking, the media, especially television, has a large number of women in senior positions. “Television is an unpredictable profession. It’s the hardest to manage with a young child, especially in a senior position. I found it hard to say ‘no’ even if my child was sick. And unlike the head office, the bureau did not have the infrastructure to support working mothers. Even in a women-dominated organization I found it difficult to find empathy,” she says.
A Mumbai-based banker, who also does not want to be named, had spent four years with a leading bank and stuck it out for two years more after her first child was born. Finally, in 2009, she stepped down as associate vice-president. “When I came back from my maternity leave, I had a lot of pending leaves which I would take when my child fell sick. But that was an issue,” she says. “I would manage my clients from home, but that was not good enough as my male peers with kids were in office 12 hours a day. I was denied a promotion despite meeting targets. My boss would say things like, ‘Why do women have to work? I tell my wife she should stay home.’”
“It is natural that you will have a child who will fall sick, ageing parents to care for, and parent-teacher meetings to attend,” says Sanyal. “In our country, and in many other countries, women carry the load of social responsibilities. Many women willingly opt out of the active working force due to social pressure. You can only reach a senior level when through the years you have been provided with equal opportunities and supportive policies to see you through those critical phases.”
Making a difference
Attitudes, though, are changing, with growing awareness of the gender gap.
“Companies have recognized the need for adapting to changes that are being introduced in other markets to help women ease back into work after having children,” says Mumbai-based Nita Joshi, director, K&J Search Consultants Pvt. Ltd, an executive search firm. “Some corporates now offer flexi-time and daycare centres at work. But it is not the norm yet.” Some of the exceptions—Bharti Airtel, which offers daycare facilities, Accenture, which offers flexi-time and has tied up with crèches, Godrej, which has an in-house crèche and offers the GROW (Godrej revival of opportunities) programme for women, and Tata’s Second Career Internship Programme for Women that offers flexi-time.
Sarbani Sengupta, director, customer service, at DHL Express (India) Pvt. Ltd, who’s based in Mumbai, credits company policies like flexible timings and work-from-home options for being able to do justice to a demanding job which requires considerable travel. Sengupta, mother of a five-year-old, says, “They understand the benefits that a woman brings, in terms of a different perspective.”
Women bring a higher emotional quotient, believes Sanyal. “A better balance in stressful situations, the ability to forge strong client-customer relationships, and a high effectiveness in crisis management situations. What I am happy is that Marissa Mayer’s appointment is encouraging intelligent debates about women in the workplace. I hope it ushers in further changes in our attitudes as well.”
While Mayer is generation Y’s radically cool poster mom, will her success really have an impact on Indian women in boardrooms? As of now the road for “Mother India” seems long and stony.
Shai Venkatraman is a journalist, teacher and blogger with a special interest in issues related to health and gender rights.
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