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Opinion | Make that career break your friend and move ahead

Women should approach their careers strategically and make that break strategic too

The word “career break" is among the most ominous ones I have ever heard. The year was 1995 and I sat in front of an interviewer at a telecom startup, after a three-year break. I was shocked and disturbed when he suddenly dialled the recruitment consultant who had sent me and blasted her. “Why did you not tell me that this candidate has taken a huge career break?" he asked. He was expecting a regular, career-primary person—not a maverick mommy who had stepped off the career track and now wanted it back. And so, my interview consisted almost entirely of him focusing on the break and of me responding defensively as to why despite the break I was fully equipped to manage the role. At the end, he did give me the job, but with a huge pay cut to demonstrate that the break was not forgiven. Suffice to say that the words “career break" gave me PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) for a few years after that.

Welcome to 2019. The good news: The break is no longer the career suicide that it was. Many discerning organizations have come to accept breaks as a natural phenomenon in the course of an Indian women professional’s (IWP) career. Over 66 organizations in India have specific second career tracks with about 7,000 to 8,000 women re-entering the workplace every year. The bad news: Of the almost 48% of all IWPs, under the age of 30 who take a break in career, only 15% make a comeback. So, despite a relatively positive work environment, why are IWPs not returning in large numbers? I believe that it has a lot to do with how an IWP plans her break. Recently, Avtar, a diversity and inclusion strategy firm, in partnership with the British Deputy High Commission, created the most inspiring second career women awards. We spoke to several women who made it back after the break, successfully. Here’s what some of them (names have been changed to protect identity) had to say.

Anita, who took a break of eight years, is currently senior manager, customer care at a holiday resorts company. “My long break was always seen as a huge impediment until I realised that I was too rigid about my expectations. Once I became flexible about what I wanted in my long-term career and, more importantly, how I went about it, I landed a job, almost immediately. My take: Your career is a marathon, not a 100-metre dash."

Bharti, who took a break of three years, is currently a business analyst at an IT company. “Just before I put in my papers, my husband and I sat down and visualised what a typical day would look like during my break. It included things like creating a strong support system, enabling myself to be employable (when I return) and also taking care of things that needed my attention. The result: my re-entry was smooth as silk. My take: The planning that goes prior to the career break is more crucial than the one after."

Roshnara, who took a break of 11 years, is currently manager, accounts receivable, at a healthcare BPO. “During my break, my skills had got somewhat rusty. Just before my re-entry, I decided to upskill myself. I enrolled for an online course in my domain and the kind of confidence it gave me was amazing. Within weeks of finishing the course, I got a job. My take: If you feel you are lagging behind in the skills area, do something about it."

Jayshree, who took a three years’ break, is currently academic assistant at a business school. “For many months, I searched for jobs through portals, consultants, etc. Then I started cold calling and going to organizations to drop off my CV. One such place is my current employer. My take: Don’t wait for someone to hand you a job on a platter. Go out and get it."

Of the 1.5 million Indian women who are on a break right now, 65% are mothers. A lot has changed in the past decades since that day I visited that telecom company. But the guilt which an IWP feels at having taken the break is still alive and thriving. To each woman, this Mother’s Day, I say: let not that guilt come in the way of your comeback. Approach your career strategically and make that break strategic too. To every mother who has taken a break and is wondering where she went wrong, let me say, you did nothing wrong. Go on, make that break your friend, girl!

Saundarya Rajesh is a social entrepreneur and diversity and inclusion strategist, and founder and president of Avtar

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