If you’ve taken a break from your career to get married, have kids, look after elderly relatives, is getting back into the workforce easy? Will the transition be smooth? Will companies want you back, and if they say they do, will they mean it?
When Neha Bagaria – founder of JobsForHer, an online portal looking to help women who’ve been on career breaks back into the workstream – took three and a half years off from work to have kids, she found herself in new territory, and pondering these questions for the first time.
A Wharton graduate in finance and marketing who started her first company while still in college, she had moved cities after getting married and began to work for her husband’s family business in pharmaceutical manufacturing. After pausing her career to have two children but returning to work fairly easily, she noticed that many of her women friends – doctors, lawyers, engineers – who had been ambitious about their careers, but had taken time off to have kids, hadn’t returned to work at all. With her entrepreneur antennae working overtime and some market research that showed her there was a big gap in the jobs market that women who had taken career breaks could fill, JobsForHer was born in March 2015, on International Women’s Day.
A year on, JobsForHer launched a diversity drive across Bangalore, Delhi, Chennai, Baroda and Mumbai, between March 7-11, with eight companies, including MindTree, MakeMyTrip, Target and Schneider Electric, looking to hire women who want to restart their careers. The response was overwhelming: over 10,000 women registered with the portal (which crashed several times that week), and are continuing to do so. The drive with Schneider Electric is still on: it runs until March 26, in Bangalore, Gurgaon and Baroda.
We asked Bagaria about the several ways in which women navigate tricky career breaks. Below are excerpts from the interview.
What are the most important reasons for why women tend to take breaks in their careers?
It’s the four Ms – marriage, motherhood, mobility (relocation) and medical care. From the women we’ve worked with, I can say that the largest chunk of them have taken time off to look after children, followed by those caring for elders, which is a growing number.
On the other hand, women are worried that if they do step back from their careers for their families, they will be penalised for it. So many women have told me that they want to take a break, but are scared to. Their child or their parent might need them, but they’re scared to get off that horse [for fear that they can’t get back on].
What’s the hardest part about taking time off from one’s career?
You rarely plan these things – I never, ever thought I would stop working. I worked until the ninth month of my pregnancy, figured I’d take a month off and resume work soon after. But then life got in the way, and I thought I’d take a year off. By the time the year was over, I was a raging full-time mom. I felt nobody could do things better for my child than I could, and I decided I would stop working and be a full-time mom.
That changed when I had my second child three years after the first one, and found I wasn’t spending as much time on the older one, and he was managing just fine. By then I’d grown frustrated and missed having a sense of identity apart from being someone’s wife or mother. I’d been out of the formal workforce for three and a half years, and never figured out how to answer the question, “So what do you do?” in a way that sounded right to my own ears. Sometimes, the answer would be “full-time mom”, sometimes it was “nothing much”. My grandmother was a stay-at-home mom, so was my mother, and everyone else in my family who had had kids, so it was the norm in my family. But when I filled in “housewife” on forms, I felt like I was referring to someone else. For me, my identity was defined by what I did, and not working meant that my confidence took a big hit.
My friends who didn’t return to work felt held back for two reasons: one, that they didn’t want to go back to the old companies in which they’d worked, because their colleagues who had once been on the same level as them would now be their superiors, and that was difficult to digest. And two, companies weren’t willing to hire them because of the gap in their careers.
Women also tend to underestimate themselves. When you take a break, the biggest problem is you lose your confidence. You feel like you don’t remember things that you studied or worked on earlier, or that you won’t be able to manage work and home life. You feel guilty at the thought of putting your own needs first. These hold you back – one of the main things I have to coach women not to do when they go for interviews and discuss titles and salaries, is to say “give me anything”. I tell them to ask companies what their budget is for the position. Or do a little research on what market rates are for that particular job. If you were earning a particular amount before the break, there’s no need to settle for anything lower. As a woman, any kind of negotiating, or asking for what you deserve, is really hard. For women who’ve taken a break, this is even more so.
Did you find that companies were open to hiring women who’d taken breaks in their careers? Was their interest genuine?
When I had returned to work at Kemwell, my husband’s company, but started to notice the trouble other women were having with getting back to work, I went out, did a market survey to ask companies if there were okay with taking back women who’d had a gap in their careers. The overwhelming response was that they had absolutely no problem with it, they just didn’t know where to find them. Did they mean it in a genuine sense, or was it just lip service? I wasn’t sure. But I realised there was a really big gap, just waiting to be filled.
I had to make sure there were enough women out there looking to get back to work, were they still employable, would companies actually take them and not just say that they would, because it was the right thing to say?
In March 2015 we launched JobsForHer, in three months, we had 150 companies on our portal. We would visit companies, as the brand ambassadors of these women, and tell them about how these women were settled, recharged, skilled, waiting to prove themselves and rearing to go. And they were willing to join immediately, with no waiting or notice period to serve. We’ve found that companies have been extremely positive about it. A year since we started in Bangalore, we have 500 companies on our portal, and operate across India. I’m pleased to say that we’ve found that companies really are interested in hiring women after a career break.
In general, how have things worked out for the women you’ve helped place?
We started last March, and had our first match in April. Touch wood, she’s still with the company and rocking it. Many of the women have been doing really well, since they tend to come back at a stage when they are ready for it. We had a company who hired a work-from-home social media expert and they loved her, they thought she was fantastic, but after a few months she found she wasn’t able to handle work and kids, so she quit. They were really disappointed and looked around for a new one. But luckily for them, in a couple of months she was able to sort everything out and joined them again. We’ve had a woman who took a five-year career break and was recruited as assistant vice-president of a branch at Kotak. Every company that I’ve spoken to has been really happy about the talent that has come through.
Are women looking to start working again only looking for full-time jobs? Do companies also allow women flexible timings, or the option of working from home?
Sixty-seven percent of the women on our portal are there looking for full-time jobs. Full-time jobs in an office also tend to be the most meaty ones, and give you an opportunity to grow by interacting with other people face-to-face. The next big chunk comprises women looking for opportunities to work part-time or from home. For companies, part time is a great way to save costs and infrastructure.
When I speak to companies, I usually suggest that policies to allow flexibility be made for men as well. Some companies already provide flexibility irrespective of gender, and I’ve heard from Citibank that more men than women tend to take it up.