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The Second Coming: what brings women back to work

Updated: Jan 29, 2020

Quitting work to have a baby was both the toughest and the easiest decision. It was easy because obviously, I wanted to have a child. At the same time, it was tough because it meant giving up my financial freedom. The other thing I lost, which I realized slowly, was my sense of self-worth. For so many years I had been defined by my work as a journalist and by my byline (my name in print) – and giving that up was tough. After my daughter was born, I was itching to get back to work.

Getting back to work was not easy. I started slowly with remote assignments. The money that came in was not even a quarter of what I was earning before I left the workforce, but the sense of self-worth sustained me. I not only took on work where the pay-out was a pittance, but I also took on volunteer work to keep myself in touch with adult humans and not spend all my time with an infant. I edited a book and a bi-monthly magazine, and I helped with fund-raising for a children’s cancer support charity.

The first roadblock I hit when I decided to get back to full-time work was the hours. I consciously decided to side-step my 24×7 news reporter life for the more time-bound lifestyle journalism route. Of course, I had to take a salary cut. But that is the way the cookie crumbles – to be able to get back home to my child at a decent hour, I had to settle for less money.

My story is not unique. I am just one of the many who leave work for various reasons despite having reached the higher levels in their chosen professions. In India, the female labour force participation fell from 35% in 1990 to 27% in 2018.

Shachi Irde, Executive Director, Catalyst India, told Business Today that according to Catalyst’s First Step: India Overview tool, the drop out rate of women from the corporate sector between the junior and mid-levels is nearly 50%. The reasons for dropping out range from gender stereotypes, lack of informal networks and few female mentors.

But prioritization of gender diversity programs in organizations has begun to show results. The Zinnov study shows that the representation of women in corporate India has increased from 21% five years ago to 30% now.

I spoke to two strong women who left the corporate sector – for different reasons – at high designations and how they got back to work.

Creating her own opportunities

Deepa Nailwal is not new to taking breaks from her career. After quitting the Indian Air Force as a squadron leader, she worked at several corporate houses before resigning from a VP designation position in Human Resources.

She took the decision to leave a full-time job and is now working her own time as an executive coach, trainer and independent human capital consultant.

When I asked her about the reasons for changing her career, Deepa says, “Apart from times when there were logistical reasons, I decided to quit a job because I was not enjoying what I was doing. It was becoming very stagnant.”

She told me that she wanted to explore who she was, and what she was capable of as an independent woman and hence quit the corporate world to start something on her own.

When I asked Deepa the reasons that make women get back to work, she says, “Today women are very well educated and well qualified. They have the desire to prove themselves and they know that they have it in them to make it big in the world independently. They know that they can do a lot.”

This, according to Deepa, is what primarily drives women to get back to work.

Deepa says she has seen women take a break and feel absolutely miserable about it, as they spend all their time at home.

Back to work confidence

For Priyanka Prakash who heads marketing and partnership at ‘Give India’ – the country’s largest professional fundraising platform — it was her ambition and confidence in her abilities that made her get back to the workforce after a year-long maternity break.

“I wanted to have a good career and wanted to take up more challenging roles. I am an ambitious person, so I started looking for opportunities right after my daughter was born. I remember I was looking out for opportunities quite aggressively. I had confidence in my abilities and that kept my will to get back to work strong,” Priyanka says.

Talking me through the time when she was pregnant and looking out for a senior position after the start-up she was working shut, Priyanka says, “I was the head of e-commerce at the start-up. But after it shut shop, it was a little challenging to find a senior position because nobody wanted a pregnant woman and nobody was willing to take the risk. I missed out on a couple of great opportunities because of this.”

She says that she always wanted to work and was quite worried about whether being pregnant would limit her career growth.

“From a compensation perspective, I definitely took a hit when I joined another start-up after my break. Being a young mother, I was looking for flexible timings and at the back of my mind, I was afraid that if I don’t give my full, I’ll again have a setback. So, I ended up working harder,” she says.

Wanted: Mentoring for women by women

When I asked Priyanka about the changes she’d like to see in the work environment so that it would be easy for women to get back from a break, she says, “Women who are older and more experienced in the professional circle have not developed the culture of mentorship where they can create a support system for younger professionals. A solid mentorship can create more confident women.”

Priyanka also says that spreading awareness of the fact that they can also negotiate their salary and their position after they have come back from a break would go a long way.

Deepa, on the other hand, would love to see many healthy and diverse organizations where there are people of all generations, genders, languages and races. “I would like to see an organization where people are themselves and the final decision taken by the organization is an inclusive decision. I would like to see an organization where women are empowered.” Deepa says.

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