Motherhood challenges (45%) and maternity (35%) are the most common reasons for women to take a break from their careers, says survey. Photo: Mint
Motherhood challenges (45%) and maternity (35%) are the most common reasons for women to take a break from their careers, says survey. Photo: Mint

Women returning to work face multiple tests

  • Women looking for a career after a break list insufficient support at home, absence of a strong network and skill gap as the biggest barriers, says survey
  • The survey revealed that the majority of respondents anticipate a pay cut on re-entry due to the prevalence of motherhood wage penalty

Women take sabbaticals from work for many reasons, but the end result is often the same: they fall behind in terms of salaries and professional growth. Even when they return to the workforce, they face a host of challenges. According to a survey conducted by Avtar Group, an organization which works to promote diversity and workplace inclusion in India, the second-career ecosystem in corporates can be testing for women for reasons ranging from pay cuts to lack of support at home.

The online survey, titled Second Careers of Women Professionals–The India Story, was part of Avtar’s annual research, Viewport 2019. It was conducted among 783 second-career women from various sectors across India with an average work experience of nine and a half years and an average career break of four and a half years. The survey revealed that the majority of respondents (69%) anticipate a pay cut on re-entry due to the prevalence of motherhood wage penalty, which refers to mothers suffering from wage and hiring disadvantages in the workplace.

Unequal roles

According to the survey, motherhood challenges (45%) and maternity (35%) are the most common reasons for women to take a break from their careers. At 16%, elder care responsibility is another critical reason. “A woman is the caregiver and is prone to take more career breaks for reasons such as marriage, childbirth or elderly care," said Dipika Jaikishan, chief investment officer, Basis, a personal finance platform for women.

This difference in gender roles forms the basis of a greater inequality between men and women in Indian society. According to the latest World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2018, India ranked 108th out of 149 countries on the gender gap index. While India fared better in terms of wage equality for a similar work indicator, on which it held the 72nd position, it ranked 142nd in the economic opportunity and participation subindex. This dichotomy is the result of the gender pay gap which emerges due to women staying out of the workforce or dropping out of it.

The economic impact

According to a report published by McKinsey Global Institute’s in 2018, women’s contribution to India’s GDP (gross domestic product) stands at 18%, one of the lowest in the world, reflecting the fact that only 25% of India’s labour force is female. More than 70% of the potential GDP growth opportunity comes from increasing women’s participation, the report added.

According to Saundarya Rajesh, founder-president, Avtar Group, encouraging women to return to the workforce after a sabbatical can make all the difference. “Mainstreaming career returns and normalizing career breaks can push the needle. It can help reverse the trend of the declining labour force participation rate of women, it can help businesses infuse greater gender diversity in their workforces. It can also have incremental influences on the country’s GDP," she said.

Fraught with challenges

When it comes to challenges for women returning to work, the survey found that insufficient support at home (23%) is among the top three biggest barriers for second-career women. The absence of a strong network and skill gap are the other two barriers listed on top, according to 59% and 36% respondents, respectively.

But there are other hurdles as well. “While a woman may have started her career at the same income level as her male counterparts, she usually comes back (after taking a break from work) to a lesser salary by virtue of taking this career break. The gap widens when a break is taken at senior levels," said Jaikishan.

She added that this setback can have far-reaching consequences. “Even if were to assume that women come back at a 20% lower pay, over our working tenures, this can compound to 75 lakh to 1 crore gap in the earning potential," said Jaikishan.

Ready to reboot

Despite the challenges, women feel the need to return to the workforce for various reasons. The survey found that financial security and putting their education to good use are the two biggest motivators for women to make career returns. But what they want from their second career is not the same for everyone. While 63% of the respondents said they would prefer full-time jobs, 23% said they would want to come back to flexible roles. While 45% said they would be open to the idea of shifting to a new domain of work, 41% indicated that they would prefer to return to where they left off.

As for preparedness, 69% women said they had up-skilled themselves during the break. The report also lists corporate programmes aimed at encouraging women starting their second careers. Despite the difficulties that women face in returning to the workforce after a sabbatical, many of them seem up for the challenge, aided by organizations dedicated to the cause and corporate onboarding programmes designed or them. If the trend continues to grow, it could be a step in the right direction to bridge the gender pay gap in India and boost the country’s GDP.

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