Mid-level women executives and the Indian gig economy

Balancing work and family, many women believe freelance is a good way to stay in the game

Sonya Dutta Choudhury
Updated2 Sep 2021, 12:34 PM IST
Chandrika Pasricha says women don’t find it easy to survive the gig economy in India. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Chandrika Pasricha says women don’t find it easy to survive the gig economy in India. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Women drop out of the workforce at various stages, but the main thrust often comes when they are in their 30s and have had a second child, or in their 40s, when their children’s schedules become demanding and stressful.

For Moomal Mehta, founder of head-hunting firm Crossover Catalysts, it came when her daughters were in middle school and had to balance studies and sports training. Mehta, who had worked at Citibank for 17 years and then part-time with the non-profit, Asia Society, decided to turn entrepreneur, working with individuals who wanted to shift careers from the corporate to the social sector.

Moomal Mehta says women don’t get gigs that value their experience. Photo: John Ravi/Mint
Moomal Mehta says women don’t get gigs that value their experience. Photo: John Ravi/Mint

“For many women leaving the corporate world, fending for themselves in the gig economy or as entrepreneurs is the only choice, as corporates do not provide flexibility when a woman needs it the most—during children’s board exams or for taking care of ageing parents,” says Lathika Pai, founder of Sonder Connect, an organization that supports women entrepreneurs.

But carving out a career in the gig economy can be difficult. And research shows women may face even greater barriers owing to their lack of access to networks and financial capital. “In India, women are only 35% of the gig economy,” says Chandrika Pasricha, founder of Flexing It, a platform that connects organizations to consulting talent.

Pasricha quit full-time employment at McKinsey and Co. in 2007 to turn independent. “I wanted more control of my life; I wanted to be able to choose my clients; to travel less,” she says. Yet, she believes that in India being part of the gig economy can be tougher than being in a regular job. “Women struggle more. They tend to price themselves lower because they are uncomfortable asking for more or because they don’t always know the market rate,” says Pasricha. Collecting payments can be a long-winded process as well. And senior-level, high-quality consulting gigs are hard to find. “You just don’t get situations where you get value for your expertise,” says Mehta, who looked at working on a project basis before she turned entrepreneur.

Given that mid-level and senior women executives bring in diversified thinking, more companies should look for ways to include them in the gig economy. In fact, many of these women, once they exit a defined structure, also have the added advantage of having learnt the skills of being entrepreneurial with limited resources.

Companies which choose to employ more independent professionals should try to get them to work alongside full-time employees so that they have a better understanding of the organizational culture and a greater sense of belonging, and can contribute effectively and at a competitive cost, says Ruchira Chaudhary, a Mumbai- and Singapore- based executive coach who became an independent professional several years ago.

Taking on more women as independent professionals is a good organizational strategy because many women find it hard to return to the restrictions of a corporate environment. “I cannot embrace that level of structure any more,” says Mehta, who believes she is now better able to balance the demands of her work and family while pursuing a rewarding career. She earns a lot less now, and misses the mentoring and 360-degree feedback of an organization, but would never return to full-time corporate employment. Neither would Pasricha, though she does miss the sense of community and belonging. “I miss being part of the Monday morning contingent at the airport flying to client sites,” she says.

In an ideal world, women should not be pushed to make choices—and if companies don’t start accepting their role in the gig economy, they will continue to lose talent.

How to be successful in the gig economy

Be entrepreneurial: As an independent professional, you will not have the comfort of a big-name company. Think of yourself as a business in terms of marketing, branding and pricing.

Cultivate a network: As an independent professional, you have to make an extra effort to stay connected. Join industry networking organizations, attend the relevant conferences and build strong industry networks that lead to referrals.

Keep your skills topical and fresh: You are only as good as the skills you possess—add to these through academic study as well as online projects.

Be selective about the assignments you accept: Look at the long-term value of the kind of assignments you accept. For example, if you are consulting, try building expertise in a sector you think will see growth.

Invest in administrative support: Hire an assistant or use third-party expertise for mundane tasks like travel bookings and expense claims. These can become major irritants if you have to do them all yourself. So budget for this and invest in help.

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First Published:2 Sep 2021, 12:34 PM IST
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