By Neha Bagaria
In the growing conversation around gender diversity in the workplace in India, it is important to keep in mind another aspect of this big picture — 48% of Indian women drop out of the workforce before they reach the middle of their career peaks. This is in stark contrast to the corresponding data in education, where girls consistently outperform boys in school. So why aren’t girls topping the corporate ladder?
There is clear evidence that the pipeline for women is smaller to begin with, right off the bat when they graduate from college. Girls and young women may be scaling new heights consistently in their studies, but this does not continue in their career trajectories. Amartya Sen famously wrote about India’s missing women, arguing that it all begins with the severe disadvantages that female children in India face. These disadvantages only perpetuate themselves and multiply, as our girls grow into women.
Nearly 20 million Indian women quit work between 2004-05 to 2011-12. And the reasons, as we all know, are familiar. Marriage, motherhood, looking after aging parents or in-laws, etc. And they’re all valid reasons too.
The root of the problem
If there’s one thing that’s clearly standing in the way of more inclusive outcomes in the workplace, it is bias. Every person holds certain implicit biases. Biases are essentially strong beliefs or perceptions that one has about certain things. The reason they’re implicit, is because they’re usually unconscious, sitting just below the level of our conscious awareness. Implicit biases are hidden, latent and unintentional, but they manifest themselves in a much different behaviour.
There are many biases towards women that have existed for a long time — particularly about women with children. For example, women tend to be distracted with childcare responsibilities, or that they won’t work long hours into the night to meet a deadline, etc.
When hiring managers hold these implicit biases, the outcomes for the talent pool of women returning to work from career breaks are less than favourable. As Bhavna Toor, the founder of Shenomics repeatedly points out, it is important to be aware of these biases in order to minimise them and in order to reduce their negative effects and outcomes.
Many working women face what is known as the Motherhood Penalty — a wall that they come up against in their professional lives, where they are judged, often unfairly, about their value. For example, the perception that women are less committed to work or aren’t as ambitious as men because they also have domestic duties as mothers or wives or daughters or daughters-in-law.
Bhavna is a strong proponent of the concept of being mindful of such biases, and using this mindfulness as a tool to sensitise hiring managers. Mindfulness is essentially training your mind to understand what your implicit feelings are in the present moment, and to tackle them head-on rather than going with them. Many progressive organisations have used mindfulness very effectively to enable hiring managers to become more aware of the biases that they may hold towards women in the workplace.
These kinds of strategies are key to changing the model of how we look at hiring today, to affect more positive outcomes across the board.
Family-friendly policies are the need of the hour
Last year, India extended the duration of maternity leave for female employees to 6 months. While many lauded this as a welcome move in retaining good female talent, the fallout was that it also served as a disincentive for smaller companies to hire women in the first place.
This takes us right back to the Leaky Pipeline — “The largest percent of Indian women leaving the workforce (the ‘leak’) happens between the junior and middle level, as opposed to between the middle and senior levels. Familial pressure and cultural norms are most often cited as reasons for leaving in the early stages, and women often find it easier to remain at junior levels or to leave the workforce altogether.”
This is what we were trying to fix in the first place.
The conversation needs to move to putting in place more family-friendly policies that in turn incentivise men to take on more of the responsibility of parenting, so that women are not levied with the Motherhood Penalty at work. It is only when this shift happens that the needle will truly move, both at home and at work. Balance cannot be achieved on one front alone.
The bottom line is that it makes financial sense for a company to design and implement parental leave policies, invest in its female workforce, retain their talent, plan ahead for when female employees take leave, hire suitable contract employees to fill their spot, and welcome them back after their leave to restart their careers when they’re ready.
This is an area that can truly affect change by looking at the big picture. And many companies in India are waking up to this realisation, and stepping up to the plate.
Uberise the workplace for greater efficiency
The traditional 9-to-5 full-time job is being turned on its head as the world becomes smaller and busier, and businesses become more efficient. In this day and age, when time is at a premium and traffic is a daily nightmare, many young people, millennials, and working mothers prefer flexibility over working from the confines of an office, in order to have greater control over their time. Companies also gain from these kinds of working arrangements, with reduced infrastructural costs and greater efficiency. Work from home, flexi-time, and part time jobs are on the rise in India.
The nature of workplaces and the needs of employees have changed over time. On the one hand, the value of personal time and a work-life balance have become increasingly important, and on the other, companies are looking for new and innovative ways to increase their margins and improve overall efficiencies and bottom lines, as competition increases. The Uberisation concept meets both these ends of the spectrum beautifully.
Women returnees are perfect for a gig economy model, and companies are working on making templates out of certain roles and jobs that are conducive to this concept. Work from home and part-time/freelance assignments are amenable to types of work that can be templated and monitored efficiently. Writing, graphic design, IT, and sales and data analysis are all examples of kinds of work that can be designed for work from home or flexi-time arrangements.
Uberisation is an important step in the right direction, and is a low hanging fruit for companies looking to diversify their workforces. When more women return to work after career breaks, companies must make the effort to understand their needs, in order to retain them in the long-term.
The main mission is to bring more women back to work in India. There are literally hundreds of thousands of women out there who are in the same position, looking to re-enter the workforce, with no clue where to begin. The mission is to change this status quo. From helping companies hire more women, to understanding the needs of the talent pool and the needs of companies who stand to benefit from this latent talent pool. For example, the need for women who have taken career breaks to reskill themselves when jumping back into the workforce. There is a need for women returnees to have strong mentors. Having a strong mentor is the need of the hour. Today, we are mindful of the reasons why women drop out of work, and are collectively working to solve this challenge. We’re cognisant of the many barriers that exist at home and at work, for women to scale new heights professionally. It’s only when we are truly aware of cause and effect, that we can truly affect change.
Neha Bagaria is the founder and CEO of JobsForHer.
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