After 10 years with renowned organisations in the financial sector, Neha Ghodke, an IT professional, opted for a break. “It was getting hard to juggle home and office when my second child was born. I might have continued if my company had the facility of working remotely," she says.

After speaking to a cross-section of women, certain patterns emerge from their stories. One, women tend to muster the energy to balance work and family through marriage and the first child. The turning point that pushes them towards a career break often comes with the second child. Two, the reasons for a sabbatical are manifold – ‘can’t muster the energy’, ‘unable to do justice to family and a demanding career’, in addition to a lack of support system and a sense of guilt about missing their child’s growing years. Three, the career break can be averted if they have opportunities to work remotely or at flexible timings.

Women in the higher echelons of the corporate world in India are few and far between. According to a 2015 McKinsey study, women make up 46% of new graduates, but only 29% comprise entry-level professionals. Of this, only 16% reach mid-management and 4% senior management roles. A World Bank study done in collaboration with the National Sample Survey Organisation states that 20 million Indian women quit their jobs between 2004-12, of which 65-70% never returned to work.

“Juggling family and work was sapping my energy," says Deepa G, who left a flourishing career as an IT professional at a multinational investment bank when her second child came along. “I might have continued had I been able to move to one of the company offices closer home," she adds.

After working for a major telecom company for 14 years, Surbhi Khanna took a break after her second child as her parents were ageing and she felt that it was unfair to expect them to take care of two children. She stands by her decision today as she watches her children progress with a deep sense of satisfaction.

Though most women who take a break from work for childcare do not regret the decision, they do find it hard to return to the workforce. “I am finding it difficult to get a role that matches the one that I held before the break," says Khanna. Potential employers seem sceptical about whether she would work with the same enthusiasm, though she has invested her time and skills conceptualizing and running a camping resort with a partner during this period.

Many women feel that organizations could do more to support women through this transition. “In my view, organizations tend to perceive this resource pool as one from where they can hire at subpar compensation levels," says Ghodke. “One of my friends had to wait two years until a suitable opportunity came her way."

Not all the women make the transition back into the corporate world easily. “It takes a lot of grit and determination to successfully transition to a second career innings, as it is not easy to adapt to corporate life after a break," says Poonam Sheshadri, Director Operations, Contactx Resource Management. “Of the total number of women I have placed after a career break, about 30% have made a successful transition," she says.

That’s where the organization can play a supportive role. “We are striving to leverage this pool of skilled and experienced women wanting to return after a career break though our CAPtivate programme," says Gayathri Ramamurthy, Head Diversity and Inclusion, Capgemini. She says it’s important to help the returning women build skills as well as confidence, which tends to erode during the long absence from the workplace.

Ramamurthy also emphasises on the need to address reporting managers’ scepticism about the candidates’ learning agility, availability for on-site assignments, need for too much time-flexibility and emotional readiness to resume a demanding corporate career.

“We realized that a ‘one size fits all’ approach would not work. Recognizing the fact that everyone needs time flexibility for various reasons like child-care, senior-care, children’s board exams, self-learning etc, irrespective of gender, we instituted a flexi policy for all grades as a function of role and performance. We strengthened this further by instituting a paternity leave policy and creche facilities across our offices," she says.

The Tata Group offers a flexible platform to returning women with opportunities to work on their terms through its Second Careers Inspiring Possibilities programme. It offers project-based assignments for three to six months, consulting assignments for six to twelve months or full-time employment. “Over time, the programme has helped a large number of women jumpstart their second career innings and many have successfully transitioned from project or consulting assignments to full-time roles within our group companies," says a Tata Sons spokesperson.

Charu Sabnavis is a coach, an organizational development facilitator and founder director of Delta Learning.

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