Women who juggle baby and briefcase have their hands full

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While large firms have set maternity provisions — leave or flexi-time options — the working mom often has her career cut short due to other biases inherent in corporate as well as societal outlook.

A mother works from home despite the distractions of her family.

“If only someone could understand the exhaustion from juggling an exclusively breastfeeding baby and a full-time job.” I saw this post by a millennial woman on FaceBook a few days ago.

Women her age are juggling their work and social lives alongside taking critical decisions about settling down and starting a family. Their professional life after their return from maternity is fraught with uncertainties and is no less complicated than it was for my generation. They find that their peers have moved way ahead. Changes in company policies and business strategies, hidden biases when being considered for senior positions and competition from new entrants, human or otherwise, place stumbling blocks in the way of their professional growth. It does not seem to matter that a woman has had a worthy experience of a few years, is fully competent, and has oodles of emotional intelligence.

Aditi, a 32-year-old cybersecurity professional from New Delhi, asked her boss for a promotion after returning from maternity leave. She had completed a course while on leave and put in extra hours upon return to complete her projects on time. She knew that her firm preferred to hire only male employees or chose women who provided real “value” to them. Aditi never let her firm feel her absence while she was on her 26-week maternity leave thanks to ‘work from home’ options made available to her. She knew that one of her younger colleagues had not disclosed that she was married so that she could stay ahead of people like her. Aditi failed in her bid. She was counseled to wait for a year or two while her colleague went up the ladder.

In 2017, Ikea announced that its employees in India — women and men — would be entitled to 26 weeks of paid parental leave on the birth of a child, following a policy announcement by the government. The Ikea policy also applied to employees who have had children through surrogacy or adoption. Also, mothers would be able to work half days for 16 weeks on their return. Ikea’s move was a big step forward for India, where a 2015 survey by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry showed that 25% of women quit their jobs after having a child.

Big organisations do put in place provisions for staff to access flexi-time options and paid maternity leave. However, the majority of the medium-sized or small firms do not have the resources to stop-gap while the staff is on leave. With a fight for market share and narrowing profit margins, women like Aditi become dispensable. Further, the intricacy of cultural and social expectations on women means professionals like Aditi face tacit opposition from their communities and families when they decide to aim high professionally. Coupled with feelings of anxiety and guilt, many women choose to leave the workforce or play second fiddle to their colleagues who may not have to face similar considerations. The final prerogative rests with the bosses as to whom they would choose to invest in with an eye on the bottom line. Statistics on work-life balance and staff development remain just figures in the annual report, and gender parity at senior levels remains out of reach.

 

A woman’s journey becomes lonely when she returns to the workplace and aspires to professionally aim high while trying to maintain a balance between work and life. The daily battles she faces, the conscious and unconscious bias she may have to endure, and the pressure to choose what is ‘correct’ over what is ‘right’ can make her bid for a fulfilling career a pipe dream.

 

For women who work in temporary or casual jobs, the reality is starker. They do not qualify for maternity leave or wages nor any professional development opportunities. The long-term prospects of a woman who may not have completed her schooling and does not have any skills or vocational training are sabotaged even before her work-life starts. With limited options, her fundamental right to rest, access resources, and make wise choices about her reproductive health is compromised.

The situation of a nearly 40-year-old woman working in a medium-sized start-up in Silicon Valley may not be all that different. Betsy has been stuck around the ‘upper-mid level’ in her outfit for over a decade. Many new changes have happened when she was away on maternity leave. The start-up has recently revised their business strategies. Betsy has a new supervisor, a Gen-Z who orders his dinner from ‘Fit Body’ or ‘Planted Table’ through an app before skateboarding home on days when he chooses to come to work. At the end of most workdays, Betsy fast-walks to the car park situated some 20 minutes away to reach home on time to churn up a healthy, home-cooked meal for her toddler while continuing to pay attention to her partner who was retrenched recently from his IT company.

Both millenial men and women face many uncertainties. Except, women have an additional layer to consider. They bear further consequences when they return from their maternity breaks. Despite taking the initiative to re-skill themselves and offer a competitive advantage to their firm, it is years before many of them get noticed for promotions and career-development prospects. Many of them do not remain in the workforce long enough to occupy a seat at the boardroom table.

Returning to work ought to be exciting and not be an obstacle race for women. Parental leave for maternity, surrogacy, or adoption is now guaranteed in many countries and organisations. Men and women can now exercise their right to be a parent irrespective of the roles they play outside of caregiving.

However, a woman’s journey becomes lonely when she returns to the workplace and aspires to professionally aim high while trying to maintain a balance between work and life. The daily battles she faces, the conscious and unconscious bias she may have to endure, and the pressure to choose what is ‘correct’ over what is ‘right’ can make her bid for a fulfilling career a pipe dream.

The time is ripe. Let us focus the spotlight on the specific needs and aspirations of women when they return to work after childbirth. Otherwise, millennial women too will be missing from the board rooms.

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