When I took a career break, I had never imagined that the word ‘Career Break’ could have some dire consequences on my return journey to the professional world. It was a struggle of almost two years after which I got the desired break. (By this break I mean a break from my career break !!)

What does career break mean for women?

Career breaks which are otherwise a great tool to take out time for self, family, study or travel is not the same for most women. For them, even today, to take a career break means taking time off for maternity or to take care of growing children or elders, courtesy the patriarchal society we live in and it’s bearing on us. These important responsibilities around childcare, eldercare, children’s education, domestic chores and the unending emotional effort that goes into holding a family together often go unrecognised. This is still considered unpaid work and not even accounted for, in our GDP.

While navigating through the different life stages of being a daughter, wife, mother or a daughter-in-law, women often succumb to the increasing family demands, societal pressures, their own cultural conditioning and end up taking career breaks. Hence, the trajectory of a woman’s career is often shaped by the expectations and demands from the various social roles she plays.

The Journey – Return from Career Break

According to a study by the World Bank 20 million Indian women quit jobs between 2004-12. Around 65-70% of the women who quit did not return to work at all. In India, women account for 25 percent of the workforce and according to a report by the Indian Women Network, 36 percent of them take a break from work. These numbers speak for themselves and clearly indicate the huge untapped talent pool of professional women for organizations to harness and the quantum of boost it can give to the economy.

Why women, either do not return or find it challenging to return to get the right job, the second time?

As women decide to return after a career hiatus they are plagued with a series of self-doubts like, will their profile even get shortlisted, are their skills outdated in the evolving job market, will they be able to balance work and home, will they be able to match to the expectations at work and so on. Their emotional readiness is being tested at this stage. It is very critical for women to have self-confidence, anchored by emotional and physical support from her family during this time. Women who are able to create a robust support system around them are in a better spot to return.

Also, in terms of industry competitiveness, they might be on a backfoot as their skills might not be considered relevant with evolving technology and dynamic work environment. It is always recommended that women stay in touch with their area of work and make efforts towards honing their skills during the career break.

There are many other important external factors like lack of policies around flexi working, travel time and the sharp decline in income that women suffer after childbirth, often termed as motherhood penalty impacting the decision to return from a career break.

But a little planning and effort during the career break can play its part in reducing the apprehensions and fears which the word ‘career break’ brings in the minds of returning women and even recruiters at the time of selection.

Harness the untapped talent pool

According to McKinsey Global Institute’s Report, 2018, Women’s contribution to India’s GDP stands at 18 percent, one of the lowest in the world. India has one of the largest opportunities in the world to boost GDP by advancing women’s equality – $770 billion of added GDP by 2025. It is heartening to know that many organizations have started acknowledging the positive contribution second career women can make to the organization and are also accepting these breaks as a natural phenomenon in the career of Indian women professionals. Organizations can reap the benefits of a diverse workforce by utilizing the skills of already experienced women employees to its advantage.

With this focus, returnee programs have been a potent tool in successfully attracting women back to work. Returnee programs are a progressive step taken by corporates, providing a formal pathway for returning women. These programs help women reskill and offer opportunities to return. Over 66 organizations in India have specific second career programs with about 7,000 to 8,000 women re-entering the workplace every year.  Many organizations have done pathbreaking work with their returnee programs like Second Career Internship Program (SCIP) by Tata, Springboard by Microsoft, Reconnect by Axis Bank, Career 2.0 by Genpact, Second Careers by CITI , Rekindle by Amazon to name a few.

While returnee programs are a great platform to bridge the career gaps but they are not the only solutions for returning women. Organizations having realised that, need to work on integrating returning women into the workplace.

Employers need to provide women access to more flexible work options like remote working hours, telecommuting which support work life balance and help returning women to settle in smoothly. In fact, flexible working tops their list of criteria while making a re-entry.

Providing a supportive infrastructure at work like day care facility, creches, feeding rooms for young mothers etc.  would make their comeback easy and make the workplace more attractive for returnees.

Sensitization amongst managers and team members to positively orient them for the cause of the returnees is another important part of building an inclusive ecosystem for them. Making employees aware of the biases, stereotypes that work against returnees and embracing a positive mindset are critical for long lasting success of any such initiative.

Women have come a long way and in many fields of work broken gender stereotypes. Winning stories, we hear and read of women successfully returning to the professional world are an example of that. Organizations have a key role to play, in providing appropriate avenues for women to re-enter, offering an inclusive and supportive ecosystem to make their return journey less challenging emotionally, physically and professionally. Not only will such organizations encourage returnees but also provide a safe and stable work environment to the current women workforce and reduce the number of women falling off the corporate ladder in the first place.

While in some cases career break is no longer a dreaded word for women with increased corporate sensitivity towards this topic, we still have some distance to go till we achieve gender equality and a stage where motherhood penalty and unpaid work cease to exist.

~ Rupali Kaul