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Saundarya Rajesh, President of AVTAR Career Creators, talks to us about how the Indian ecosystem has evolved to accept second-career women and flexi-working.
Interview by Aparna Vedapuri Singh
Indian women who are getting back to work after a break or are looking for flex-work options often find themselves at a disadvantage. Is this scenario set to change? Saundarya Rajesh, President of AVTAR Career Creators, a Recruitment and HR consulting firm leading the I-WIN initiative to help women progress in their careers, tells us how Indian companies have gradually begun to realize that encouraging talented women to stay in the workforce is beneficial for everyone.
You started with helping women get back to work post a break, to now a significantly larger scope, of enabling companies to go forward on gender diversity. From the time you began your work in this area, what are some of the key changes you’ve noticed in the Indian ecosystem?
Saundarya Rajesh: The appetite for change, for trying-out something that is not quite the norm, is high for organizations when business results are good and the economy is robust. When an organization has sufficient funds to invest in progressing that change, we find that there is excitement in experimenting. Else, companies tend to follow the beaten track and stick with what they have always done in the past.
In our 8 years of working in the area of Diversity and Inclusion, I find that companies which delink business results from pursuing an agenda of progressive change are the ones who have benefited the most. In 2005, D&I was meant for those organizations which wanted to assess how women can be ‘useful’ in the workplace. There was an attitude bordering on patronising, a lot of toe-dipping and also throwing some CSR into the whole package. We needed to sell the concept of having more women in the workplace as either a CSR strategy, a recruitment strategy or sometimes even as a hedge against attrition. This has changed to a large extent today.
This year, in February 2013, when we conducted a study of the D&I practices of organizations, we found that this perception had changed and companies today wanted more women in the workplace as a way of mirroring the market place and as a pool of sustainable talent. I was delighted that women are being taken seriously and activities to engage genuinely with women are gaining credibility and investment.
You’ve written extensively about how the availability of a flexible working policy is one of the key enablers in retaining women at work. In the Indian context, why is it that even now, so few companies are willing to try this? Where are the roadblocks?
Saundarya Rajesh: Simply the lack of experimentation! Flexibility is no doubt the oxygen of women’s careers. But each industry, in fact each organization has to pick up the concept of flexibility and make itself comfortable with this. It is not about trying it out for a while, getting a policy written and then saying that there are not many takers of the policy. Flexibility has to become ingrained in the culture and this requires generous measures of trust and non-performance-proofing. How do you make this happen? By experimenting with flexibility and checking its integration into the general blood stream of the organization.
More specifically, the practice of flexible working demands the setting in place of various systems and processes. It requires managers to be more confident and comfortable with new ways of working and new assessment methods. It needs supervisors to learn new skills to manage a remote or a flexible worker. About 35% of the managers who we assess for flexi-managerial-readiness are still uncomfortable with not having the team gathered around in cubicles. ‘Presenteeism’ is still expected – when you believe that the measure of productivity is not what gets done but who is present at the office.
Companies that have bought in into this concept at a very integral level and have the support of high-placed business champions, have been able to implement flexible working successfully. And when I say ‘successfully’ I mean that there are role models. We need women who have actually been there, done that and then talk about it for the benefit of other women. We need organizations to speak about these role models and what they have achieved by way of success – having been enabled by flexible working.
Has it become easier for women who take a break to return to work? Is a ‘gap in the resume’ still viewed suspiciously by companies?
Saundarya Rajesh: If our work in the past 5 years is any proof, I would say that the gap is not such a bad word anymore! But change is taking place at a rather slow pace. Out of every 10 organizations that we meet to evangelize the concept of second careers and returning women, at least 4 are uncomfortable with the concept – and we need to provide empirical evidence to show that second career women are able to do it!
Looking at it from the other side, we also counsel women professionals who are keen on second innings that even if there is a time break in their resume, let it not be a skill break. Staying in touch with your craft is a very important thing that women, especially those aspiring for mid to senior positions, must focus on.
“Work Life Balance” – ideal, myth, possibility or reality? What is your take on this much bandied about term?
Saundarya Rajesh: I dislike the word ‘work-life balance’! It is a term designed to contribute to the already existing pressure that we anyway face. In the effort of trying to achieve that perfect balance between the two aspects of our life, we only end up frustrating ourselves. I rather prefer the term ‘work-life integration’. This means we do not attempt to pour our energies on apportioning equal time for work and home, but we learn how to weave together the two. We live in the moment. We enjoy what we do and we make sure we are fully focussed on that persona at that point of time.
What drives your work in this field, where significant change takes time to happen? What keeps you motivated?
Saundarya Rajesh: Tomorrow keeps me motivated! I believe that every effort that we put into the purpose of our work will see rich results in the future. Plus all the many roles that I play such as wife, daughter, daughter-in-law, mother, entrepreneur, teammate and friend give me new dimensions into what life is all about. Each role defines me and creates new energies in me. My life is a fluid stream with the many avatars which flow in and out – no water tight compartments here!
*Photo source: Saundarya Rajesh.
Founder & Chief Editor of Women's Web, Aparna believes in the power of ideas
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