Consider this; India could add up to $770 billion—more than 18 percent—to its GDP by 2025, by merely giving equal opportunities to women, according to a 2018 report by the McKinsey Global Institute. In order to achieve the projected growth, we must create an ecosystem that nurtures and encourages women to grow, especially women who are on a break and are gearing to get back on their feet.
Returning to the workforce: The psychological barriers
The struggle for women on a break to get back to working world is real. A report by the World Bank, in collaboration with the National Sample Survey Office, says, 20 million women in India quit their jobs during 2004-12, out of which around 65-70 percent of women who quit never returned to work. There are several reasons behind women taking a break in their career; pregnancy, childbirth, childcare, health issues, providing elderly care. With India’s Amended Maternity Benefit Act, women are now eligible for 26 weeks of paid time off. However, the absence of a corresponding benefit for new fathers, this further accentuates the gender stereotype of women being the primary caregivers.
At an individual level, women feel guilty about placing their careers before family and children. Often, women feel compelled to adhere to a set of socially accepted norms that dictate them to focus on childcare and to look after the home as their primary responsibility. At the workplace, supervisors refrain from assigning critical tasks to women who have returned to work postpartum, as management often assumes that they lack the requisite focus and are unable to contribute efficiently. It affects the morale of the individual, and ultimately, they drop out of the workforce. In my personal experience as a leader to women coming back after a maternity break, I have only found them more passionate and fiercer to get the job done, provided the work environment helps them to be flexible with their working hours.
Reskilling: A critical turning-point for women
Women who return to the workforce after a gap find it difficult to cope with the changed organizational pace and find it strenuous to juggle their new identities and roles. The lack of updated, new-age skills makes them under-confident, and hence, many women prefer to opt-out of the workforce altogether. A JobsForHer survey shows that 34 percent of the women believe that reskilling is a necessity for women to restart their careers and for job role changes. Reskilling will make women not only more employable but also instill confidence for their renewed careers. While it may be difficult for women to sign up for classroom training during their break, the sky's the limit for opportunities to learn online. There are multitudes of courses in management, tech skills, soft skills, human resources, marketing, and communications that learners can follow their own pace.
What can organizations do to reskill women?
When we think of ‘reskilling,’ we often tend to focus only on hard technical skills, like software development tools and new digital processes. However, it is essential to remember that many women who are on a break, may not have had an opportunity to update themselves on essential collaboration tools, which also go through regular updates, such as SharePoint, Skype for Business, etc. Thus, when designing a reskilling program, ensure that the training is undertaken from a holistic perspective and not just getting women ready for ‘your’ organization’s need.
It is heartening to see some organizations making progress in supporting women to return after extended career breaks. One such initiative is the internship or ‘returnship’ opportunity that provides both personal and professional training, giving women a hands-on experience on live projects and ensuring that they are industry-ready in a short time. Based on their performance, women are likely to be inducted full-time into the organization at the end of their internship. Some organizations are providing the essential infrastructure that is conducive for new mothers; like, crèches, flexible working hours, dedicated feeding rooms, among others facilities to help new mothers settle down in their new roles.
As much as the onus of getting back to the workforce lies with the women, it is also the responsibility of organizations to provide the necessary infrastructure that will help them ease back into the work environment. In order to achieve equitable and sustained economic growth, women need to be made integral parts of the workforce and a special focus must be made on ensuring that women on break aren’t left behind.