At any office party where spouses are invited, there is invariably a point—after the latest human resources circular is dissected, before the B-school nicknames come out—when someone turns to the quietest person in the room and asks, “So how are the kids?” If the question is directed at a mother who has never worked, there is resentment, yet a quick recovery. But if it’s someone who had a career before choosing to spend some time raising her children, the question digs up shallowly buried despair and doubts.
“It was irritating that other people seemed to be more concerned about my quitting work to stay home than I was,” says Sangeeta Navalkar, who used to work in sales and brand management in a media conglomerate. After she had her first child, she went right back to work. But when she had her second, she decided to take a break. Six years later, with both her boys in school, Navalkar decided she could go back to work as long as she had the flexibility to come home early in the evening. But technology had changed, her break had been a long one and she was unsure about the options available to her. Since this is what keeps most mums away, specialized consultancies and corporate programmes are now offering tailor-made solutions for women who want a second innings in their careers.
Jaishri Sivaraman and Vanessa Ohri were also mothers whose advertising careers were unmoored when they had children and started trailing their husbands to locations around the world. Two years ago, when they reconnected in Delhi, they hit upon the idea of starting a placement consultancy only for mothers who are looking to go back to work after taking a baby break. Their outfit Momsatwork (www.momsatwork.co.in) counsels and finds tailor-made jobs for these women.
“When working women become mothers and decide to take a break, at some point they realize they have lost their self-identity. Once the kids start school, they are ready to come back to work and then find out that there aren’t too many options available,” says Sivaraman. Highly structured organizations with strict HR policies are averse to hiring people on flexible work schedules and setting, what they assume is a bad precedent. So Momsatwork avoids these and talks to companies that are flexible and open to employees working the hours they choose as long as their deadlines are met.
Help at hand: Jaishri Sivaraman (extreme left) and Vanessa Ohri (third from left) host a counselling session. Pradeep Gaur/Mint
It’s not easy convincing an employer though. Mostly, women with children are perceived to be more committed to their families than their jobs. Employers worry about frequent leaves. Also, they tend not to hang around late in the workplace; in some organizations, this is interpreted as a sign of “not working hard enough”. The women themselves are under-confident and in awe of former colleagues who now hold much senior positions. “You can’t really convince someone about these. But once they hire one or two mothers, they realize that their ability to multitask, focus and finish their work on time is outstanding,” says Sivaraman.
The lack of self-confidence is the most debilitating factor stopping these women from going to work. Sairee Chahal, founder of Fleximoms, says once you counter this, the rest is easy. Her company offers training programmes—a two-day refresher programme for women who have worked before and are on a break, and a 15-day course for women who are looking for jobs for the first time—and brings candidates up to speed on what has changed in the workplace. “If we work only on the confidence of these women, 60% of the work is done,” Chahal says.
While most women do manage to cope when they go back, those who opt out often do so in the very first month. “We are careful about who we place. For example, the other day, this lady came in and her husband and baby accompanied her. Clearly, if she was unable to leave the child behind for an hour to meet us, chances are she won’t be able to manage work—even if she is working out of home. So our advice to her was that she should wait,” says Ohri. Ideally, mothers who wait till their children are in school and have full-time help or parents or in-laws who live close by are best able to cope. Though daycare centres and crèches are popular and available, Ohri suggests a dry run of two months before finding an assignment.
The trouble is you can’t be entirely certain how you will cope. Navalkar says there were days, like when both the children fell ill at the same time, when she questioned how she would be able to cope. But she saw an ad for Tata Second Career Internship Programme—a six-month project for qualified women looking to come back from a break—and decided to apply. She started with an option of flexible hours and the need to go to office only three days a week. She built it up slowly and now, two years later, she works five days a week but has the option to go home early in the evenings so she can spend time with her boys.
Priya Datta is a trailing spouse. She used to work in a multinational market research agency. Then her husband got a job in Shanghai and she moved there. “The help you get in China is more accountable, so even though my son was small, I found a job and worked full-time there,” she says. When she moved back to Delhi, she first decided to try finding a job herself. “When you approach someone on your own and ask for flexible hours, it almost never works out,” she says. Momsatwork found her a job in a small, independent agency. She worked from 9am-2pm, so she could be home before her children came back from school. “But with my husband’s frequent postings abroad, it would be best if I worked for a company that is multinational and recognized abroad. So I have taken a break now,” she says.
Settling for a job that has less scope is usually an unavoidable prospect. “Also, be willing to look at other functions,” says Sivaraman. Case in point, though Navalkar’s previous experience was in sales and brand management, she is now in Tata Services’ HR. “I would have looked for a marketing or brand role. But this was the option that Tata had. I had to read up a lot, HR was not an area that I had any experience in. But now it’s OK, managing people is not rocket science,” she says. And it’s impossible to catch up with your former peers in terms of salary. “But it’s a choice I made. And I have had the joy of watching my kids grow up. You can’t put a value on something like that,” says Datta.