She Speaks is an original Shenomics’ series of dialogues between leading women from various disciplines on relevant issues pertaining to professional women in India. Disclaimer: All views contained in this article represent the individual’s personal views, and not those of any organization with which they might be affiliated.
According to the International Labor Organization, Indian women are leaving the workforce at a faster rate than any country in the world – Indian women comprised just 27% of the workforce in 2014 as compared to 37% in 2005. A big reason for women dropping out of the workforce, though not the only one, is breaks taken for motherhood. Keeping women in the workforce is imperative as it gives women a great sense of accomplishment, keeps them in the leadership pipeline, and helps the overall economy. But, how easy is it for women to come back into the workforce? And, is a career break career suicide for women?
Schonali Rebello, Content Manager at JobsForHer and Archana Patni, former Consultant with The Anita Borg Institute, both returning mothers, share their highs and lows of navigating the career jungle gym, in conversation with Shonali Advani.
How long of a career break did you take, and why?
Schonali: My career break was for 2 years after I became a new mum. I started out thinking that I’d become a full-time, stay-at-home mum. Until my son learned to walk, and then he literally walked away from me, every day. At least, that’s what it felt like. I no longer needed to carry him everywhere, or watch him all the time, or be there for him all the time. He walked into his own little life filled with new friendships and relationships with the world around him, and that inspired my journey back to the work I once loved.
Archana: I took a 2-year break as well to take care of my kids.
Do you think women can balance motherhood and a career?
Archana: Easing back to work is actually the key to saying you can manage both. It’s a precarious balance but it is possible. I have a supportive family and luckily no financial burdens, which makes things much easier. So, I’m okay with pay in any spectrum. When my younger daughter, Noor, was two years old, I joined this travel startup and I’ve never enjoyed working so much because it gave me a sense of such accomplishment in such a short span of time.
Schonali: I grew up with the example of a mother who always worked for other people and we are three siblings. She raised three kids and earned equal to my father. She also did the cooking, ferried us to classes etc. My husband’s family is a business family, so the mothers were always around. For me, the struggle has been to convince people that my child is not suffering. Children are more independent than we think they are. I only feel guilty if I’m not there for my quality time evenings with my son, after work.
How challenging was it to return?
Archana: In terms of challenges, I’ve been lucky with both the jobs I’ve had after a break. I work with the Anita Borg Institute, which is a work-from-home option and a gift from God. It enables me to contribute more. As a mother returning to work, I felt under confident. It’s difficult, when your confidence is at play, and you see your colleagues and peers have gone way ahead. They’ve managed everything so brilliantly – baby, high-paying job, and partying at night. I’ve not been able to manage all that. If you can work with your family to go around that and say it doesn’t matter what stage you come back at, you can build things up. That’s really the key to whether your career will be good or not.
Schonali:I’ve restarted thrice now, twice being in Canada. With a baby, it really slays you. The first three months cut your feet from under you, and as a control freak it was hard. That’s what plummets your confidence, basically.
I actually could not believe how easy it was to return after I did. My boss was so encouraging, so motivating, and had such a massive “You can do it, girl!” attitude, which she had infected her entire (then) tiny team with, that I felt like no time had passed at all during my phase of new mommyhood! Both her and my new team members were super supportive, helpful, and NICE to me, throughout my career restart. I felt like I could do anything I put my mind to, in this team. And so I have been lucky to do, since.
Did you feel judged by colleagues in a new work environment?
Archana: I have worked in very small organizations with mainly women and strong women at that. I felt welcomed and accepted. All the under-confidence was on my end. Most women go through it heavily and that makes things difficult. We don’t realize how much energy we’ve built up and can bring back to work because we have had a break.
Schonali: Yes and No, but with age comes maturity. You just need to make yourself be heard and known through your work. There were way more highs than lows.
Any first day anecdotes?
Schonali: I was the fifth employee, and we were working out of Church Street Social. I was so nervous I would bomb, when Neha, the founder, gave me a couple of things to do. When I completed the task, she said, “Oh man! You got exactly what I said and I don’t have to correct any of it!” it was a massive boost of confidence.
Did the ‘mother’s guilt’ hit you?
Archana: Yes. It’s so over consuming! Especially as a first-time mother, I killed myself over it. The second time around I was more relaxed. Plus, it’s not every time that the family is supportive. I believe it’s the prerogative of the woman. We need to be assertive about it and say to ourselves, “I need a career, and I will manage my career and my guilt.” It’s a mind game.
Are you able to be as productive as you would like as a working mother?
Archana: My family and children are my priorities, but once you figure out how to balance things then you can be more committed and productive during the hours at work.
Schonali: As soon as my son started playschool, I had three more hours, so I said let’s add them on. The more you do, the more you can do, and you’ll find how much you can stretch an hour.
How did you prepare your children for this change?
Schonali: The younger the kid, is the easier it is. I’ve seen when women go back after 11-12 years, and it’s the child that gives you guilt. But I think what I did is I prepared my 20-month old son saying, “Mama is going to the office and you will play with Julie,” every day, sometimes multiple times a day. Repetition is comforting for children.
Archana: Yes, it is about setting expectations with the child. If my door is closed they know I’m working. The younger one is much more cooperative, the older one doesn’t listen of course now! When you work from home it is more difficult. When I worked with the travel startup, I could have stepped out and worked from elsewhere, but I didn’t do that because I needed her to know that this is my work space and it’s equally important. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to be with her.
WHAT HELPED ME
- I’m strict with my family. I defined my boundaries and stuck to them everyday.
- I put out my job search on LinkedIn.
- I eased my way into the work place.
- I took ownership of my role and responsibilities at home & work
- A supportive husband
- House-help that I was happy with for my son
- Realizing that it takes a village to raise a child- extended family, staff at home, school, and teachers.
How do you think about your career now?
Schonali: Things changed in my head when I realized I want to do this in my foreseeable future. Initially, I was treating it as a great way to get out of the house, till I heard the Chief Human Resource Officer of a large bank speak one day. She said, “Women need to realize that they need to put themselves in the shoes of the breadwinner. Until they do that their career will never take off. So, stop thinking of your income as, ‘I’m going to buy that handbag’ but think about it as I’m going to pay for school fees, the mortgage or anything else that my husband pays for.” That changed my entire perspective.
Archana: It’s not easy to think of your career the same way men do because we are so ingrained in our patriarchal thinking. That’s the wonderful part of this time and age where this shift is happening. More women are starting to think that they need to own their careers and it is possible to do so. You don’t have to be a Vice president or a CEO; you can do what works for you, like freelance.
Schonali: Sheryl Sandberg said it perfectly. It’s not a ladder, it’s a jungle-gym and you have to navigate the jungle-gym. Also, we are in our own time zones. Just because someone became a CEO at 45 doesn’t mean you can’t at 65. You can; it may just not be your time yet, and you’ve got to enjoy wherever you are.
Archana: I feel at this point, I’m done with babies and distractions in my career. Now, I want to see focused growth. Five years down the line where do I see myself? I actually have an answer this time. I want to contribute equally to the family front as well, because I want my husband to take it easy. He’s a 40% parent too, takes care of kids, and buys groceries etc.
Are companies accommodating of returning mothers?
Schonali: The bigger ones have taken serious steps with day-care facilities within their campuses, or close by. They also offer easy working days as well as generous maternity, paternity and adoption policies. Startups too are thinking about it.
Archana: I am a big proponent of work-from-home. It needs to be figured out as a pathway for everyone, and not just as a benefit to mothers. People are using technologies like WhatsApp, Slack etc. anyway. I think it’s what you are supposed to do, it’s not about doing women a favor.
What policies need to change in the workplace so life becomes easier for returning mothers?
Schonali: At JobsForHer, we don’t work weekends, and all of us have different hours. Allow work-from-home options and give more generous sick leave days because you would be taking those not only for yourself but for your child as well. To me, part-time work is the best thing ever. We have a number of communities in India who are all culturally ingrained in their way of thinking, whether they are educated or not. At the end of the day, a woman stops working after a baby and people survive on one income. The Government and private institutions have to step up their game. Unlike large corporations, SMEs cannot foot the bill for maternity leave. The government needs to do more there to get our women back at work.
What do you say to women thinking of returning back to work?
Archana: India is in such an interesting space where startups provide a wide variety of options. I’d say, look out for those. Be okay for a different career frame that you are used to traditionally. Be okay with starting low and working up again. Be assertive. You come with experience, having managed home, and babies – men don’t have that. I think if you have the luxury of not putting money in the forefront, a lot of options open up for you.
Schonali: Take the leap. It is so, so, so scary, until you actually jump off that cliff and realize that it was really just a tiny ledge. Because girl, you got it, you always had it, and you always will. So you can ROCK this.
About the Authors
Bhavna Toor is the Founder and CEO of Shenomics, a Mindful Leadership platform for aspiring women. She helps women realize their highest professional aspirations, and believes in daring greatly, leading boldly and living mindfully.
Shonali Advani is a trained journalist, having worked previously with leading publications such as the Economic Times and the Entrepreneur magazine. She is now a freelance writer and startup consultant. When not working, she is dreaming up her next travel destination.