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Mothers On A New Track (Part 1)

Posted: January 25, 2011

How do working mothers in India negotiate their careers post motherhood? Career planning for women has its own challenges.

By Aparna V. Singh

It’s a well-known fact that although Indian women are getting into the formal workplace in droves, they are also dropping out in large numbers – especially post motherhood. There is however a small but growing tribe of women, who choose not to drop out but instead adopt a ‘slow track’ or ‘alternative’ career – either for a short period of time or permanently, to accommodate the needs of their children. A contributor to this is the willingness of more workplaces to offer flexible work options.

How do they arrive at these choices? What impact does the slow track have on growth? How do women adapt to their new career track? What are their feelings about the trade-offs that they have made? These are some of the questions we’ve tried to find answers to, by talking to a few women who have re-designed their careers in the wake of motherhood.

One thing that emerges fairly clearly is that women who become mothers at an older age have more power when it comes to negotiating with their employers on work timings or models that suit their new lifestyle. Since few Indian employers have standardized policies on flexible work options, much is left to the discretion of individual managers or decided on a case-to-case basis. The female employee who has already proved her worth to the organization and is seen as indispensable, is therefore in a better position to re-fashion her job role.

Career planning for women: A non-linear track?

Given the biological needs of the child for the first year, the largely accepted norm of the mother as the primary care-taker and the lack of childcare options or family support in metros, most mothers do prepare themselves for a scaling down. Riti Sood Kalra, 31, Senior Manager for Overseas Operations with a large logistics firm and mother of a 3-year old opted to work out of home for a larger part of the week, post motherhood. She says, “I mentally prepared myself that this slowing down would mean no promotions and pay hikes. Also, my son came first. If he needed me or was unwell, I skipped meetings and work.”

However, the preparation is never absolute and moving to a slower role can bring with it lesser authority or recognition at the office, which is hard to accept. Riti admits, “There was a long period of mental struggle. I was depressed. I hated every independent woman…But now I am at peace with my decision. When my son says ‘I Love You mom’, that clears away all doubts I may have had.”

Perhaps one of the hardest things to prepare for is the ambiguity about one’s future career path. Unlike men who can safely assume a linear path, women may have to look for other openings in the same firm that demand less time and on-site presence or perhaps even start up their own ventures. Rashmi Bansal, noted author and Editor of the youth magazine, JAM says in Lipstick Jungle – Survival Guide, “The first thing to accept, very early, is that you will not have the same career path as a man, the linear A to B, B to C, management trainee to CEO.”

Working mothers in India and the career impact 

Motherhood and adopting a non-linear track definitely comes with pluses and minuses. With the greater work-life balance and ability to care for a child are trade-offs at work. Falak Randerian, 30, Senior Manager, Corporate Communications with a software firm and mother of a 19 month old, began her discussions with her employer early. She says, “I was sure that I would continue working after my baby was born but I also knew my baby would be my priority. I made it clear to my employer that I would not travel and work late. Also I made it very clear that I would not take up an assignment over the weekend.”

Consequently, she has to miss out on projects that involve travel or company events that need to be organized over the weekend. While her basic salary has not been affected, she has lost out on the bonus component which used to be around 25-30% of her total earnings. Preparing for a lower total family income is something that may be needed.

one of the hardest things to prepare for is the ambiguity about one’s future career path

Money is not the only thing to be affected. Sonali Das*, 30, Group Business Director with a research organization was handling vital business development activities and on track to become the head of the Mumbai unit when her son (now a year old) was born. She worked with her boss to arrive at a new role, that involved handling 2 large and significant clients from her previous long list, and pruning of her business development activities, while taking on other activities that did not need her at the office. She works from home 4 days a week and the employer is flexible enough to let her (now smaller) team meet her at home if required. She continues to be valued for her role in maintaining these important clients, and there has been no change in her designation, salary, benefits or bonus.

She has however, at least for the time being, had to give up any dreams of heading the Mumbai unit. An outsider was brought in to be groomed for this role, and while Sonali is on good terms with her, it does cause her an occasional twinge. She believes that she would prefer to return to work at the office in another year or so, once her son starts playschool. She says, “To regain your career path, you have to be at the hub, where everything happens; otherwise, you do lose out.”

It is a cautionary note in an otherwise happy story – that alternative work paths do involve some compromises; currently, they are not usually geared to take you to the CEO’s chair.

Look out for part-2 of ‘Mothers On A New Track’, where we discuss how some mothers continue to ‘do more’ even as they adopt non-traditional paths, and examine whether fathers are making any changes at all.

*name changed on request

Founder - Editor of Women's Web, Aparna believes in the power of ideas and conversations

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  1. Very useful post, and thoughtful discussions. Being a scientist, I find the same things happen in academia and research institutes also, all these factors, not preferring to work late, on the weekends and going for tours, leads to leakage in the pipe line and all though many women come for undergraduate and post graduation in science but ultimately the ratio degreases drastically when it comes to attain a permanent academic post, move to senior levels or to become a director of an institute or chancellor of an university. This is going on for long enough, but can women’s web give us some rays of hope, although I don’t mind opting for non traditional career, keeping my family on first priority, but as you said there are a few such options, also for my daughter I would like her to have a way/option to climb the ladder out of her own choice and will.

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