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Say Tata, not goodbye

Once they were ignored, now they’re seen as a rich talent pool. Women who’ve taken a career break are being actively wooed by Indian companies, reports Naomi Canton.

business Updated: Apr 05, 2008 23:31 IST
Naomi Canton

Going overnight from a frazzled, breastfeeding, nappy-changing mum to a sharp-suited PR professional churning out press releases and fielding calls from journalists would be a switch enough to fill anyone with dread. It certainly made 30-year-old Sarika Kapoor Chokshi very nervous.

After being a senior account executive at a PR agency in Mumbai for two years, Chokshi quit her Rs 18,000-per-month job to have a baby. When, in 2006, aged 28 and keen for financial independence, she decided to go back to work, her mind was spinning with questions.

Was she up to date with current PR trends? Were her qualifications still relevant? Would she be welcomed back?

“New mothers like me are rarely accepted,” she says.

When she finally did land a job five months later with Vaishnavi Corporate Communications Ltd., many women younger than her were in higher positions.

But, says Chokshi, that actually motivated her to prove herself. “You don’t forget your basics. I found myself able to adapt to the workforce again,” she says. And, she adds, she now feels extra loyal to her employer.

Come back and work for us

Last month, the Tata Group launched India’s first advertising campaign to convince women who have taken career breaks to return to the workplace.

“We thought this would be an innovative way of making use of this unique talent pool which has been largely ignored by the industry,” says Rajesh Dahiya, vice-president, group sourcing. “It is a talent pool as good as those we find at MBA campuses. The women are of course older but they have the same skill sets.”

The Tata Group would like to increase the percentage of women in their workforce from the current 15 per cent to 20 per cent, he explains, since 30 to 40 per cent of women working for them left in their late 20s, for family reasons, never to return.

While these women were at home, they did not stop growing in areas such as multi-tasking and people management — skills of much use in the corporate world, he points out.

Second Career, the Tata initiative, targets women in Mumbai or Pune who have had a career break of less than eight years and who possess professional qualifications, offering them the chance to work flexitime and earn up to Rs 4 lakh for a six-month project. A refresher course is thrown in to update them and they can apply for a full-time job at the end.

The group has received some 1,800 applications; the 50 best candidates will be picked.

“You need to be innovative in recruitment now as you need to be in any other job,” says Dahiya. And R Gopalakrishnan, executive director of Tata Sons, also agrees: “We think this will be good for Tata and for India.”

The Tata initiative certainly offers hope to Delhi-based web and graphic designer Kabita Saxena (37), who took a career break two years ago when she had her son, Adi. “It’s very encouraging,” she says. “Women like me would love to go back to work. I actually plan to, when my son goes to school but wonder if my software skills will be out of date and I will face competition from younger people who do not have to be home by 6 p.m.”

Madhavi Lall, head of HR at Standard Chartered Bank India, where 36 per cent of the workforce is female, believes that the growth of the Indian economy has led corporations to explore new talent pools. “The next untapped pool we’re looking at is in Tier 2 and 3 cities,” she adds.

The bank does not have a specific advertising campaign targeting women who have taken career breaks since, she says, introducing extended maternity benefits and corporate daycare centres last year has already got them many such women.

Tanya Dubash, executive director (marketing) at Godrej Industries and daughter of group chairman Adi

Godrej, says they are actively recruiting from this category: “Typically, they leave our organisation when they have a child. We want to make their decision to return easier.” Only eight per cent of the staff across Godrej companies is women and they are now being offered eight months maternity leave, flexitime and corporate daycare centres as incentives.

For Goldman Sachs, which employs 100 people in Mumbai and 1,500 in Bangalore, wooing the career-break woman has been part of its global strategy for years. “No one group of people have a monopoly on good ideas, so the more diverse a workforce, the better. Women who have not been working for some time will bring, if nothing else, a fresh perspective to a situation,” says spokesman Edward Naylor.

The company recently held recruitment fairs called ‘On ramping’ (from the American phrase for rejoining the motorway). At these one-day events in New York and London, women listened to a range of speakers talking on everything from global markets and business trends, to current workplace policies, desktop technology and career options.

“Many of these women will have had very successful careers before they went off ramp, so it is a pool of proven talent,” adds Naylor.

Mateswhari Karnani would agree. When she started her company. Kissamago, in 1999, she started employing married women who had had career breaks. She now has 125 of them working from home, transcribing tapes of focus groups, seminars and conferences. When a story about her appeared in HT last year, her phone was jammed with hundreds of calls from housewives desperate to work for her. “Many companies would have turned these women down because of their advanced age and career break, but I have always preferred them as they bring maturity and an understanding of my clients,” she explains.

What’s the priority?

Put it all down to the current economic climate, says Nita Joshi, director at headhunters K&J Search in Mumbai. And Manish Sabharwal, chairman of recruitment agency firm Teamlease, headquartered in Bangalore, points to the talent crunch, especially in the service industry. He says he’s starting to see more CVs from older women whose children had gone back to school and companies are now willing to look at them.

However, Shiv Agrawal, CEO of ABC Consultants, headquartered in Delhi, remains sceptical. “There is a professional stigma attached to prioritising your family above your career,” he argues. In fact, he says, “The trend I’ve noticed is fewer women taking career breaks and getting back to work as soon as possible after having children.”

Although the Tata scheme is a smart hiring decision, Agrawal believes it will only work in some sectors like IT and knowledge process outsourcing. In other sectors like retail, finance and media, “it is all about being physically present and they prefer younger, fitter people,” he says.

So you can understand why Chokshi urges that companies be more sensitive to women’s needs. “It should not be held against an Indian woman that she put her personal life above her professional life for a while.”