Tug of war

Updated on Aug 26, 2012 03:01 AM IST

Working mothers occupy very few senior positions in Indian corporate hierarchies because social stereotypes about gender roles and policies in the workplace put them at a huge disadvantage, as yet another survey of women lawyers, released on July 31, suggests. Occupational hazards

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HT Image
Hindustan Times | ByAarefa Johari

Before her son was born, late nights and long shifts were a normal part of Mitali Kalyan-pur’s sub-editing job with a newspaper in Mumbai. After motherhood, the 29-year-old had to seriously rethink her career.

Journalism, she decided, would be too demanding to return to, given the demands of her husband’s hectic job. So when her son turned 14 months old, she left him in the care of her in-laws and started a new job in public relations. “But the long commute and eight-hour shifts in a restrictive office space still did not give me enough time with my two-year-old,” says Kalyanpur. Eventually, she settled for a pay-cut and began working from home as a freelance content writer.

Kalyanpur’s story reflects the compromises that thousands of urban Indian women have to make, either as professionals or mothers, as our corporate work culture grows more demanding.

On the surface, more educated women seem to be stepping out to pursue careers, but in the past few years, several studies on work-life balance have revealed a disturbing reality: Women occupy few positions in the mid- and upper-levels of corporate hierarchies; during recruitment, they are constantly asked about their plans to marry or have children; given a choice between qualified men and women, most companies would hire men.

At the base of the problem is a social backwardness that persists in the Indian family structure. Men are pinned to the role of breadwinners and women — the ‘natural caregivers’ — are expected to look after the home.

While gender role prejudices could take years to change in a society as complex as ours, workplaces can do a lot more to create a healthy work-life balance for women and men, say experts.

“Most Indian companies are way behind global benchmarks in changing their mindsets for creating women-friendly policies,” says Poonam Barua, founder-chairman of the New Delhi-based Forum for Women in Leadership, which surveyed companies across India last year on their policies for women employees. This year, the forum has benchmarked more than 50 companies on this axis and published a handbook of best practices for mothers returning to the workforce. New Delhi-based Fleximoms has also been actively sensitising organisations about the importance of retaining women employees. “Workplaces must realise that happier families lead to more productive employees,” says Anita Vasudeva, co-founder of Fleximoms. “Women bring value to the company. They also do the care-giving that enables men to step out.”

What companies can do

Mindworks Global Media Services, Noida

“Flexibility works for everyone”

Six years ago, when Nitin Srivastava and his two colleagues founded Mindworks Global Media Services in Noida, they realised that insisting on fixed working hours in office would work against their company’s interests.

Mindworks offers editorial services to newspapers and magazines abroad, and needed to hire employees skilled in journalism, designing and editing. “It’s not easy to find such specialists, so we were conscious about retaining our employees, even those who had to relocate to other cities,” says Srivastava, chief executive officer of Mindworks. They decided to offer flexible work opportunities, and the first employee to benefit from this was Mindworks’ former HR head, who needed time to raise her newborn child. They extended the policy to other departments, and found it worked well.

Solutions: Today, 15% of Mindworks’ staff works partly or entirely from home, co-ordinating through Skype or video conferences. Five of these employees were hired through Fleximoms, a New Delhi-based forum that sensitises companies about the needs of mothers.

Srivastava believes more companies should leverage technology to offer flexible work opportunities. “We need to question our assumptions about how work can be done and managed.”

Expert Speak

“Today, many companies offer flexitime and opportunities to work from home, but then use these as excuses to keep women out of promotions and new jobs. If workplaces introduced crèches for children, it would lower the stress on working parents and increase their productivity. Also, our notion of motherhood as ‘natural’ needs to change. It is a social construct and mothers should not be forced into a narrow niche. Similarly, why should men have to miss out on child-rearing? Let’s encourage them to work at home too.”

Veena Poonacha
Director, SNDT University’s Research Centre for Women’s Studies in Mumbai

WHAT WOMEN DO:Mothers talk about how building careers while raising children is a constant juggling act

Renuka Sethunath, New Delhi
Human resource head, Imperial Holding

“Sixty days of maternity leave is not enough”

Renuka Sethunath always wanted to have a successful career, and after marrying seven years ago, running a nuclear home in Mumbai was not too demanding on her time. Life changed completely when her son was born.

“As an HR manager, I had to take the same 60-day maternity leave that I had applied to others. But that much time was not enough for me to recover,” says Sethunath, 30, who eventually opted for a pay cut and took 20 more days of leave.

Solutions: Despite having a hands-on husband, the absence of in-laws made parenting difficult while juggling work. To reduce daily travel time, the couple rented a flat closer to her office and hired a day-time maid. Today, a year after moving to a new job in New Delhi, where her husband runs a business, Sethunath is nearly always working two jobs. Before leaving for her nine-hour shift, she handles breakfast, lunch tiffins and dressing her five-year-old for school, and tries hard to get home in time to feed her son dinner. Her husband helps when he’s not travelling. “My son has learnt that on weekdays, we belong to the office.”

As an HR head, Sethunath believes employee performance and business are affected when a person takes more than 60 days of leave. “Women can always plan leaves smartly or compromise on their salary,” she says, admitting that her company does not have too many married female employees. “Companies, too, could have crèches for young children.”

Aneesha, Mumbai
Marketing manager at a healthcare company

“My daughter called me dadi by mistake”

In the eight years of work before her daughter was born, frequent travel abroad was a staple feature of Aneesha’s job in a multinational healthcare company. After getting married seven years ago, she tried not to work late and on weekends, with some success. Now, as a mother of an energetic four-year-old, she plans to stick to the company chiefly because she has found that it is woman-friendly.

“In the last four months of pregnancy and for a year after motherhood, I opted out of travelling assignments. I also worked from home whenever I needed to, and the company was very accommodating,” says Aneesha, 34, who added six weeks of accumulated leave to her three-month paid leave. (The company now offers six months of paid maternity leave.)

Solutions: Aneesha’s return to work was a gradual weaning process for her daughter. “For the first few weeks, I worked fewer hours. Later, when I had to start travelling, I began with short day trips before slowly moving to longer ones,” says Aneesha, who now travels for at least 10 days a month. “Before our daughter started school, my husband did the morning shift at home, and I did the evening shift.”

Now, Aneesha drops her child to the school bus before heading to work. After school, her daughter spends the day at her grandparents’ place, and Aneesha picks her up in the evenings. “I try to get done with work as early as possible,” she says. “Some of my other colleagues without kids have now reached higher positions, but it was my choice to take a bit of a career slowdown.”

For now, Aneesha is very happy with the flexibility her company offers. “Even then, I’ve experienced some moments of guilt, for instance, when my daughter called me dadi by mistake.”

Rashida Adenwala, Hyderabad
Founder partner, R&A Associates, company secretaries

“I started a company with a baby on my lap”

Two decades ago, Rashida Adenwala was among the first female company secretaries to start an independent practice in Hyderabad. She battled scepticism and low payments to establish her own flourishing company, but her career began at a small desk in her marital home, with a baby on her lap.

“My field is demanding, with no fixed hours, so independent practice from home gave me the flexibility to run the house,” says Adenwala, 48. After a short stint as an employee in an Oman-based firm —where her husband briefly worked in the early 1990s — Adenwala returned to Hyderabad to restart her private practice. But before she could, she had to face a difficult pregnancy and was at home for a year. When her daughter was three months old, Adenwala hired a trainee and finally started her company.

Solutions: “Initially, I’d visit clients when the baby was asleep,” says Adenwala, who, a year into the business, began working from a rented two-desk space in a business centre near her home. “My daughter was always my priority. I worked only when she was in school or napping,” Today, Adenwala has a larger office and often travels the world for work. But her lunchtime is reserved for her daughter, now 17, who eats with her in office after school.

“I often ensure that my client companies allow flexibility to women. As long as work is done well and on time, why should there be a problem?”

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