Want to keep women in the workforce?
Love me, love my career
Want to keep women in the workforce? Then understand what brings them there
and how they want to grow
First Published: Sun, Mar 03 2013. 03 13 PM IST
We work hard and gender-balance our recruitment almost 50-50 at entry. But
as we get to the five-seven years' experience profile, the gender ratio of
women dips so dramatically," said one diversity-conscious CEO to me.
As companies take stock of their gender diversity initiatives around Women's
Day (8 March), a statistic that will almost certainly engage CEO mindshare
is the leaking pipeline of feminine talent. In India this pipeline leaks
quite alarmingly, especially as we progress from junior- to
middle-management levels-by some estimates, a full 48%. This drop compares
poorly not just with the more developed nations, but also among several of
our closer South-East Asian neighbours. It is therefore but natural that
organizational initiatives for fostering gender diversity aggressively
address attrition and try to fix this leaking talent pool.
Nothing wrong with that. But in this obsession with stemming attrition, have
we lost focus on what it is that actually brings women to the workplace in
the first place and then encourages them to stay? What if we tried to
understand these reasons better and celebrate them, using them as the prime
levers to drive home the diversity agenda?
These reasons become self-evident as we see women who in spite of so many
odds-health, menopausal stresses, work-work balancing (yes, both at home and
at work), maternal guilt, negotiations with the spouse and even "sacred
family time compromising stay-aways"-still manage to retain their sanity and
further, thrive and strive at work.
Here's my list of the top reasons.
It's all about work
This genre loves their work. A young professional, the mother of a
seven-month-old who has just returned to work, says, "I love my son, but the
high of getting back to work is something else!" It helps that several areas
have now opened up for women, giving them a level-playing field with their
brawnier counterparts. In fact, in many professions they find their own
métier since the job comes almost naturally to them. The adrenalin rush of
the intellectual challenge is their raison d'être for staying. Deprive them
of their oxygen and see them lose interest, however many "work from home"
and flexibility sops come their way.
The but obvious financial dimension
The most common reason women enter the workplace is also the most obvious.
The financial dimension has many shades. At one end stand the sole
providers-either out of choice or of necessity. Single mothers, "son-like
daughters" (not my words, mind you), rock solid siblings; or those forced by
circumstances like the death of a beloved spouse to come out of homemaker
duties and man this role (no pun intended).
Further down the spectrum but in the same dimension are women who work to
augment family incomes. Many moons ago, I remember one of my mother's
friends telling her after her first monthly pay cheque came in, "Rayma, now
not just the butter, but I can also buy the jam to go along with the toast,
without thinking 'Should I or shouldn't I?'" More apt definitely in today's
world, with high EMIs and costly English-medium private schools, where the
woman is balancing the family budget. Cause enough to keep them at work.
And finally, the sheer delight of financial independence. "The ability to
take my own monetary decisions and flash plastic without a query is indeed a
high that keeps me working," I have been very reliably told.
The self-worth dimension
From the financial to the existential! Almost equally compelling is the
self-worth dimension which propels many women to enter the workforce. "It
starts with the desire to make a mark, a mark distinct from being a
homemaker, however cherished one may be as a wife, a daughter-in-law or a
mother," a lady industry veteran tells me. The need is to step out and make
a niche for oneself outside one's home and hearth. Not for a moment am I
decrying those who choose to stay at home and enjoy it, who find their
calling in being great life partners and mothers. More power to them. I am
talking of those who feel they want something beyond. Who desire to be
deemed worthy, as perceived by oneself, in the eyes of family and of society
They may enter the workforce to make a statement, but the next stop, the
ability to create an impact is what will keep them there. Success motivates
them to further succeed, much like the proverbial self-fulfilling prophecy.
Smart organizations recognize this, assiduously invest in them and showcase
their successes, thereby encouraging them to stay and progress.
From presence to progress to power
The ability to wield power in their jobs becomes the greatest motivator for
many women to stay and succeed in their careers against many personal odds.
Power motivates men too, but the workplace power for a woman is particularly
strong because of the incremental positional benefits it gets her in her
family circles and in larger social ones as well. "This deep need for power
is what keeps my boss in her job against all odds," said one disappointed
aspirant for the same role, to me.
The camaraderie quest
"A 'break' from traditional social circles, without a break," is how one
woman professional described it to me. "I had had it with discussions on the
next holiday or the best kitty party. I love the camaraderie that I get at
work and the 'intelligent' conversation is such a godsend."
Camaraderie yes, but also the "extra something" that one gets at work seems
important. The deferential salaam of the watchman, the extra strings your
administration team can pull for you when you need some quick holiday
bookings, and the access your visiting card gives you into your child's
principal's office are all great highs. Euphemistically called goodwill
equity, this comfort quotient is a big driver in keeping women in their
jobs. "Moving out is too much of an effort. I would have to re-establish
myself all over again" is a refrain one hears over and over again when women
contemplate a job change.
Finally, the sense of inclusion you feel at work. Everyone, after all, has a
circle of inclusion which he or she would like to be a part of. "The one
question I ask myself every day is, 'Does this organization make me feel
part of the circle I feel I rightfully belong to?' The day I get a 'No' on
this one I am out.," said someone who otherwise has many reasons to stay.
Inclusion motivates men too, but somehow I have found a stronger glue for
So, diversity officers, by all means have your work from home (though it
apparently has lost favour with even Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer now) and
flexible policies, so that the stress of rigid norms doesn't wear employees
down; find great organizational sponsors who can create generations of
successful women professionals; encourage women to choose their life
partners wisely, for they can make or mar a promising career. But remember,
these policies, sponsors and career advice are in the final analysis only
enablers. The real reasons why women enter and then stay in the workforce
are different. And as another Women's Day rolls by, let us acknowledge those
reasons, celebrate them and act on them. In failing to do this,
organizations lose key levers for the success of their diversity dreams.
And for those of you beautiful women who choose to pursue your career
dreams, here's one from the irrepressible American singer Lady Gaga. "Some
women choose to follow men, and some women choose to follow their dreams. If
you're wondering which way to go, remember that your career will never wake
up and tell you that it doesn't love you any more."
Hema Ravichandar is a strategic human resources consultant. She serves as an
independent director and an advisory board member for several organizations.
She was formerly the global head of HR for Infosys Ltd.