In a span of five years, Divya quit her job twice. The first time she did so, it was six months after she had returned to work from her first maternity break. After a year’s break, she got a job as part of a second career programme offered by a BPO. Two years into her new job, she resigned again.
The reason: she had her second baby.
Eight months on, a role has emerged that would suit Divya to a ‘T’, but she is not just hesitant, but also diffident.
She feels she no longer belongs in the workplace. And this is a college topper, interview-cracker and exceptional performer at work that we are talking about.
Whose loss is this?
When women like Divya decide that the workplace is no longer sustainable for them, who bears the brunt of this damage?
Is it the system which invested in Divya’s education as a girl child? Is it the corporate that trained her, invested in her and expected her to rise to position of leadership?
Or is it Divya herself who, after getting off to two good starts, not just one, is fearing the workplace again?
The leaky pipeline cannot be ignored.
Having a child, leave alone two, one encounters the ‘leaky pipeline’, which is the bane of organisations.
The most exotic policies around women’s workforce participation seem to crumble like dust in the face of the harsh reality of attrition caused by maternity. Even for the most logical woman, going through maternity is a gigantic emotional roller-coaster which throws her best-laid plans off-balance. Over 48% of working women under the age of 30 take a break in career citing maternity as the top reason. And, companies see a surging spike in attrition of women who return from maternity. The Maternity Benefit Amendment Bill 2016 (still waiting to become an Act pending clearance from Lok Sabha) stipulates a six months benefit with the option of flexible working. However, the leave provision alone does not seem to play a major role in curbing attrition.
Sarah, 32, working with a leading IT services firm, has been considering quitting her job for the past three months, ever since she returned from her first maternity break. Her organisation, a generous one, gave her six months maternity leave even before the Bill has been passed.
Sarah identified a crèche (referred by her employer) to which her child goes and she also gets the option of working flexibly for two days in a week. However, her key challenges do not lie in these hard options — on the contrary, it is the softer aspects of her transition that seem to hasten her decision of dropping off the workplace.
The demands on a woman professional who goes on a maternity break are high. Sarah describes her state of mind as “being a jump from professional to mother and then back to a professional again.
When you are neither 100% mom nor 100% professional and seek to be a combination of the two, you seem to fail miserably at both.”Plagued by guilt and unable to prioritise, Sarah feels that quitting her job is the only sane alternative. The draining emotional upheaval that she goes through while stepping inside the doors of her workplace are not very helpful to her performance.
The different dynamics that influence a women’s thinking post-maternity have been discussed aptly by Katherine Ellison in her book The Mommy Brain . While Ellison argues that a woman actually ends up building far more robust business skills through changed neurological patterns post-maternity, the crucial clincher is that the woman requires self-awareness and support to actually emerge stronger.
Maternity coaching or counselling emerged as a strong discipline in corporate counselling since the early 2000s. As part of psychotherapy, maternity coaching did not obtain the same level of awareness or utilisation as did its more famous counterparts. In a country like India where the joint family system had an influence on the mother, maternity counselling was present by default. It was almost like a rite of passage handed down from generation to generation. Yet, in these frenetic times, with nuclear families being the norm, and with the young mother having to deal with the pressures and stresses of double-horse riding at home and work, greater attention to maternity counselling or coaching has been extremely beneficial.
Twenty-six out of “the Working Mother & AVTAR 100 Best Companies for Women in India” offer maternity coaching.
There is a significant difference of 8 % in women’s attrition in companies with maternity coaching and without. As much as the quantifiable objectives, companies which use maternity coaching also express the following positives:
a) Improved engagement and productivity among returning women.
b) Smoother re-integration of women post maternity leave.
c) Better management of maternity breaks of employees by managers/teams.
For an organisation that is a serious investor in gender inclusion and believes in the power of women’s workforce participation, the following would be highly beneficial:
1. A customised policy towards maternity leave that allows the manager of the pregnant woman to take enabling decisions from a suite of offerings. A leading FMCG organisation recognises that not all women want to go on a really long maternity leave. As such, there is a wide spectrum within which the woman and her manager make a choice. Not all maternity support systems need to be built on long periods of leave
2. Gender Intelligence training for managers that can facilitate better understanding and empathy. Diversity training (aka sensitisation training) is a must-have across all levels of the organisation. The adage that too much is never enough can be aptly applied to gender intelligence training especially in the context of returning mothers.
In 2011, Goldman Sachs began the practice of training managers to demonstrate empathy and sensitivity to returning women and it had a great impact on the performance of the women. Aditya Birla Group, Morgan Stanley and Shell are big proponents of the concept of gender training, leading to greater empathy creation in the minds of managers.
3. An enabling attitude that recognises and celebrates the woman’s personal milestone while also gently nudging her to keep her skills updated and retain her professional edge.
In the early 2000s, HCL recognised that women on maternity required to be kept updated on the happenings at office and the opportunities that were emerging. A community was built that helped the women-on-maternity-leave to stay connected
4. Support structures that result in confidence building when the mother makes her return after maternity leave.
One of the strongest enablers for a woman professional, mother or not, is a supportive peer group. Organisations such as HUL, Cisco, Mahindra Group and Integra have consistently invested in building these peer groups that provide confidence and psychological stamina to the young returning mother
5. On-the-ground counselling by way of imparting preparedness training to the young mother on how she will cope with the demands of motherhood and her career.
Companies like IBM, Fidelity, Deloitte and Mindtree have acknowledged the importance of this very critical support and provided the same.
6. A coaching programme to support returnees prior to, during and after maternity leave.
Solutions to questions such as how a woman on maternity leave can stay connected, how to ensure that hard-won relationships at work do not suffer, how to utilise communication as a tool during an out-of-sight/out-of-mind scenario, being confident even as a fresh returnee, manage time and priorities well to hit the ground running and also the important art of setting boundaries — are an absolute must for the young returning mother.
(Saundarya Rajesh is founder-president, AVTAR Group)