By Bhavna Toor (Founder, Shenomics) and Shravani Prakash (Founder, Ellenomics)
One of the toughest challenges of talent management that organizations face today is to attract and retain working mothers. A majority of working women in India continue to quit their jobs after having children and millions of them have left the workforce in recent years, especially post-Covid.
So, how can organizations stem this tide? Well, they can begin by bringing greater awareness to the challenges working mothers face through all phases of their career and provide the right level of support at each stage.
Research has proven working mothers possess several traits considered to be highly valuable by employers – they are more productive, committed, resilient and loyal as compared to their peers who are not parents. In addition, they bring a unique set perspectives and life experiences. They also have strong multitasking, time management and problem-solving skills.
Yet, as our research at Shenomics shows, working mothers continue to feel undervalued. Why? That’s because while organizations have been well-intended in putting various diversity and inclusion policies and initiatives in place, they have failed in supporting career paths for women that take into account the various phases of a woman’s professional and personal life-cycle. Workplaces have still not adapted to women’s non-linear careers paths that differ from men’s uninterrupted, linear paths, and that creates several professional challenges for women in addition to their personal struggles.
Organizations need to be mindful about supporting working mothers through 3 key phases of their professional and personal journeys:
Phase One: Early-Mid Career Professionals (25-35 years)
At this stage, women enter the phase of pregnancy, maternity and childbirth (or struggle with the physical, emotional and even financial burden of issues surrounding infertility). Once they return to work after child birth, they have to deal with the challenges of balancing multiple responsibilities, and the guilt of working as a new mother as they realize being a “good mother” may be at odds with being a “good employee.”
Professionally, a maternity break or a longer career break can create a significant dent in a woman’s career path. New mothers often find that they no longer have access to the same opportunities they once did, and may feel like the whole world has moved ahead. They get further demotivated when they are not considered for challenging roles or assignments. This is also when many women, for the first time, begin to question and readjust their level of ambition.
To support women through this stage, organizations need to ensure they have highly family-friendly policies in place for all working parents, and that their performance is fairly measured through performance-based deliverables and not just “face-time.” Managers, in particular, need to be sensitized to create a nurturing and inclusive environment for young mothers at this stage. To protect the ambition of young mothers, managers need to encourage and support them in accessing a diverse range of development experiences, from leading a high-profile project to even undertaking an international assignment, and chart out aspirational career paths for them.
Phase Two: Mid-Senior Career Professionals (35-45 years)
Balancing work and personal life can become a struggle at this advanced mid-career stage. In fact, it’s been described as a perfect storm as both work and life become more demanding. On the personal front, care-giving responsibilities towards children and parents become more prevalent. On the professional front, many middle-management positions begin to require longer hours, travel or inflexible schedules. Working mothers in this phase can end up neglecting their own well-being and end up feeling burnt out.
Women begin their careers believing the road to success would be a meritocracy, but at this stage they realize that road is, in fact, paved with biases as they encounter the glass ceiling for the first time. they may face other unfair practices such as being overlooked for promotions or receiving lower salaries as compared to their male counterparts despite being just as competent. Women may feel their contributions are being unfairly evaluated and feel the pressure to keep proving themselves. All of this contributes to a growing sense of frustration and declining levels of motivation to continue working.
At this stage, organizations need to ensure all working parents have the freedom to take time off for care-giving responsibilities without fear of penalty. They also need to ensure there is a true meritocracy in place where everyone is fairly assessed and rewarded irrespective of gender, and that women are formally and informally supported by a set of mentors and sponsors that continue to nudge their career decisions in the right direction.
Phase Three: Late-Career Professionals (45+ years)
In the late-career stage, women begin to go through menopause and their health can get derailed by debilitating symptoms, such as hot flashes, sleep problems and weight gain, that impact their productivity. They may also experience the psychological discomfort of mood changes, depression, irritability, and decreased concentration. Other conditions and illnesses may also take centre stage, such as breast cancer, causing further physical and emotional challenges. Additionally, in this phase, women face a growing responsibility towards aging and ailing parents, which may even involve dealing with the demise of loved ones. To top it all, many have to contend with the “empty nest syndrome” or a feeling of emptiness once their children begin to leave the home.
On the professional front, senior women may feel “lonely at the top” as the leadership pyramid becomes more skewed at the top with fewer women leaders. What can further contribute to the feeling of loneliness is a lack of mentors to guide them through challenges such as constantly proving their competence in leadership roles so they can be taken seriously. They might even feel constrained in being able to adopt and express a leadership style that feels more authentic. Boards and senior executives may question or be more critical of a more “feminine” leadership style that feels soft on action, which can impact both women’s confidence and performance as leaders.
At this stage, it’s essential that organizations ensure women have the freedom to lead in a way that feels most authentic to them, and not feel pressured to conform to whatever the prevailing model of leadership may be in the organization. Women leaders would also need to supported through a network of coaches, mentors and sponsors to continue to be effective in their roles. Equally, create space for them to pay-it-forward and support and mentor other women (and men) while rewarding them for that extra effort. And finally, while prioritizing the emotional and mental well-being of women in critical at all stages, at this stage in particular it become paramount.
This Mother’s Day, let’s strengthen our commitment to support and celebrate all mothers in the workplace, and remove the many barriers women face in their advancement. Organizations can do that by becoming more mindful about giving working mothers the right level of support at different phases of their professional and personal journey. That is when they’ll find their competitive edge in attracting and retaining working mothers, and allow more women to make a bigger contribution with their talents and efforts.