Call them comeback queens – they managed to return even stronger after their career breaks

Follow their tips, and get set for your next success

A man on a career break is an “unstoppable force” that voluntarily decided to pause, devote time to family and contemplates his true purpose in life. A woman on a career break is an “unstable force” that voluntarily decided to stop, devote time to family and contemplates her true purpose in life.

For both men and women, dropping out of the pipeline in the wake of burgeoning familial responsibilities is a tough decision to make. However, as is evident, the decision is complicated further for women with the above unscientific binary. And these biases tend to multiply exponentially, the longer their break lasts.

According to a recent Catalyst report, 140 women held 12.4% of board seats and just 3.2% of board chairs in 2017 a figure that can only be explained by corporate India’s inability to help women strike a work-life balance, and their failure to tap into the talent pool of women who are ready to return to the workforce after a career break.

Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, in her Gender Diversity Report notes that the representation of women tapers not just at the C-Suite level, but gradually reduces at every level in the organisation hierarchy. ‘At entry level, representation is almost equal, with 52% of positions held by men and 48% by women. But by the managerial level, the number of women drops by 11%, and the decline continues from there. Between entry level and the C-suite, the percentage of female employees more than halves—while male representation increases by 27%,’ states the report.

Sure, there are companies like American Express, PayPal, SEWA Rural and Pega Systems that are catering to these needs with a wide spectrum of policies and initiatives. Great Place to Work, the global firm which ranks organisations on several metrics, has chosen 15 companies that have made the cut as the Best Places to Work for Women in 2018. But many more companies need to join in the effort to make a tangible difference to the number of women rejoining the workforce post a sabbatical.

Whether the break is voluntary or induced, working women often confess to being greeted by stigma and non-acceptance on the other side of their breaks. “There is a fair amount of bias against women who have taken breaks. When I returned after my short break- there were some sceptics in the system for the first couple of weeks,” says Vaishali Kasture, who put in decades in the C-suite of bigwigs like Citi, Infosys, Goldman Sachs and Deloitte and now Experian, where she currently occupies the CEO chair for India. Interestingly, the latter three stints, arguably her most prominent, came after the ominous sounding ‘break’ – offering hope to women everywhere that it is not only possible to return to the corporate grind, but also to come back stronger.

To make the transition to full time employment simpler, companies like JLL and GE Appliances allow women to opt for a phased comeback – wherein they can gradually extend their working hours. Workshops, interactive sessions and regular communication with women employees are also undertaken to ensure they do not feel the guilt of neglecting family, especially when returning from a prolonged maternity or childcare break.

Kasture’s was a relatively short one; spanning roughly 18 months, as she consciously decided to go on sabbatical when her then husband accepted a job in Hong Kong, and subsequently, when their son was born. But this 18 month-period was possibly preceded by 18 months of planning, a habit that comes in handy when one is staring ahead at a break they know the duration of, but she insists is paramount when the break is indefinite.

“When you know that you are returning, try to plan exactly what your motives are for the break, and what you plan to achieve out of it – for yourself – so that you return ready. If it is unclear when and whether you are rejoining the workforce, you must ensure that you enrich your mind so that the time you spend away from work isn’t a waste, and you do not fall off the wagon when you do decide to return,she says.

The breaks that most women take are due to pregnancy, child-birth and child-rearing, when their support-system is not infallible. But Kasture says that it is crucial to not lose a sense of self, continue to work on personal goals and view your priorities outside of motherhood and familial responsibilities. “I used the time to enhance my skills and follow my passion – I learnt bridge, and even took a course in journalism.”

Her seamless transition was furthered by the fact that she remained deeply connected with her professional ecosystem even as she was separated from them by borders. “I stayed connected with my network on emails and phone. So, when I returned to India, I was able to meet with my connections and landed a good job easily,” she says.

While a red carpet may have been rolled out for her return, that is only half the battle won. Acceptance from colleagues once one rejoins work, she found, was more gargantuan a task. “However, when I demonstrated my capabilities through my work and commitment – the very people who were sceptical then become my supporters. The only antidote to all this is – to be excellent at what you do and ignore the rest of the noise,” says Kasture.

Kasture admits that there is a large talent pool out there, which makes it a tad more difficult to rejoin work. Therefore, she explains, the onus is upon you to ensure you make the cut. “Staying current, being well-read and well-prepared will go a long way. It will also be useful to articulate very clearly why you took the break and why you believe that you are now ready to re-enter the workforce,” she advises. Lastly, when you’re ready to take that leap again, ensure that this time, the support system back at home is foolproof.

A support system at home largely points towards a spouse who is willing to share the responsibilities. It is hence important to organise workshops for not just women, but also male employees. In fact, companies have also acknowledged that sensiting male employees towards unconscious gender bias and promoting shared responsibilities – personally and professionally – goes a long way into ensuring a gender equal workforce. Flexible work hours and location is an option provided to both men and women, to ensure both get the opportunity to attend to personal responsibilities. Case in point JLL and Tata Communications, who are leading the way in promoting equality.

Further, community-based start-ups like Sheroes, Flexi-Careers, Reboot are helping women rebuild their careers post a break. These portals not just connect women to recruiters, but also share inspirational stories of women who have overcome difficulties and have flourishing careers today. Major corporates, like Tata Sons, PayPal and HERE Solutions have focused-hiring programmes for women.

Though not everyone aspires to return to the drudgery of the daily grind it is important to be receptive to opportunities, says Anjali Srivastava. For techie who had been working as a Computer Science lecturer at the Kanya Maha Vidyalaya and B.D Arya Colleges in Jalandhar for six years, her break in order to move to the US with her husband may not have been voluntary, but it felt welcome, she says.

She felt the urge to return to college, or do something to enhance or utilise her knowledge, but her husband started his own venture and she was required to hold fort at home. But the close shave of almost missing the deadlines for her son’s school admission as information was not readily available inspired her decision to create a one-stop repository of the admission processes and requirements of every school in Delhi NCR called SchoolAdmissionIndia.com.

While the idea of returning to work was gradual and organic, the actual process was hardly that. Prioritising work over her young one wasn’t an option for her just yet – so, she had to work around the time constraints. “Knowing your priorities, no matter what order they are in, helps – as you can work backwards from that in creating the necessary support system,” she says.

Going forward, as work started to get more demanding, the fine art of time management became the centre of her operation. “I planned my day meticulously. Something as mundane as my child’s nap time also needed to be scheduled in a way that I could utilise it for a call,” she cautions.

Eventually, however, when the company scaled and Anjali was required to be less hands-on, she says she realised that not everything needs to be done by herself. “Get the right people in business as well as at home and learn to delegate. So, whether it was getting help at home or employees at office, you need to devote your time and energies to the right things. I started enjoying studying new technologies and implementing those on my website,” she states. “And it’s equally essential to de-stress – my morning walk was non-negotiable, for you, it could be yoga, tennis, or just plain nothing, but me-time is very important,” she states.

Investing in oneself is something Meghna Kamdar – who rose from the throes of depression after she was relegated to the life of a caretaker for her newborn in an empty home – values above everything. As someone who had been working in banking since the age of 18, she knew no other life. But in India, if you’re in the corporate world, and if you’re a woman, “life changes post pregnancy,” she informs us. Her daughter’s birth pre-dates the modest surge of crèches, flexi hours, child-care provisions made by employers. What she thought was just a matter of a year or two continued for nine long ones.

Being around an infant who simply cried, ate, played, slept on repeat, got lonely. She craved the small daily wins at work andthe recognition she received from her peers, for motherhood was a enormous job that one seldom gets credit for. “Being fat-shamed by my peers, developing dark circles due to lack of sleep, getting lonely at home being alone with the child for most part of the day, in a city like Mumbai – that was the lowest point of my life, and I slipped into severe depression. My identity and sense of purpose was now gone,” she recounts. This phenomenon is more common among women in her situation than one would have imagined.

In her attempts to climb out of that bottomless pit, she learned and repeated an important sermon. “You have to stop comparing your life to someone else’s, or even your own past life. That is the fastest route to self-pity and despair, the stark contrast will make things seem worse than they are,” she explains.

But, during this period, two changes were brewing. She realised that the circumstances around didn’t seem like they would change, therefore she must take charge, or her career would descend into a downward spiral. She sat her husband down, and asked him to share the load – something that he readily agreed to. He transitioned into a role that would allow him to work remotely, and she set out to do some soul-searching.

She found herself getting inclined to cooking, and had even taken an advanced baking course in the past – daughter in tow sometimes, burping and feeding on the last bench with her student-mommy. She had saved enough from a small catering business she started after that, to now fund her professional education at Sophia College, after which, she decided to start posting recipes online.

According to her, women also tend to let themselves go as motherhood takes prominence – just like she had. “I groomed myself, brought my health back on track, lost 20 kgs, learnt how to speak in front of the mirror and finally, decided to invest in myself and my business,” she says.

In her opinion, the key challenge for women in the second innings of their career is the lack of self-confidence and gnawing insecurity. “During long breaks, women lose confidence in their abilities and skills. But the idea of a modern Indian woman, today, is centred on reinvention and improvisation. You have to make the most of what you have – and you have to ask for more,” she says, signing off.

While stories of homemakers and their ingenious homegrown businesses flourishing are now increasingly common, even corporates are falling in line offering tools and resources to get women back in the game. To summarise the wisdom of our three ‘comeback queens,’ it is important to not fall off the wagon mentally, stay connected, seize opportunities, build a support system, delegate – and lastly, ask for more; ask for your due.

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