‘Should I Stay or Should I Go?’
Nearly half of women believe their diversity is a career barrier; they fear the effect a family may have on their careers, according to the PWC Time to Talk survey. The study further says that “about 42% of women feel nervous about the impact having children will have on their careers.” While workplaces have come a long way in introducing more flexibility on maternity and childcare benefits, women hesitate to avail such measures. The ones who do go ahead and start a family feel overwhelmed constantly. They wonder whether they should give up their careers to focus on family. Some of the trying moments come when children fall sick; the husband gets a transfer, a trusted nanny leaves without notice, or the in-laws question the need for dual careers in the family when there are no severe financial needs.
Indra Nooyi shares, “my observation is that the biological clock and the career clock are in total conflict with each other. When you have to have kids, you have to build your career. Just as you’re rising to middle management, your kids need you because they’re teenagers; they need you for the teenage years.” These years can set you back for life. Women have to prioritise between family and career. Men rarely face a dilemma between raising children and focusing on a job. Inequities in opportunities, growth, pay, talent assessment, performance evaluation, promotion and leadership begin there but continue all along the way. Even when you look at the impact of the pandemic, more women dropped out of the workforce while more men got promoted and paid more, according to a Qualtrics and the Boardlist 2020 study, reports the CNBC.
Derailers will come in many ways. Merely talking about inequities will not solve the problem. While an equal world is a far cry, even getting women to stay invested in their careers amid the conflicting demands of home and work is critical. How do we create more opportunities for talented women to flourish in their careers without guilt?
Here are two initiatives that I have implemented and found to be impactful in attacking the problem in two ways: bottom-up and top-down.
1. Inspiration from Women Role Models – Women need more women role models. Men are encouraged to take risks while women are cautioned. Women succumb to familial pressures if the job involves stretch assignments, longer hours, travel, assignments abroad, to name a few. When they see other women flourish, they start to see hope. Women need insights on evaluating their options objectively. A decade ago, I started a workplace women’s interest network that we named WIN, which became a thriving community. We defined a focused agenda: inspire women by introducing them to more seasoned women in the industry. When you don’t have enough internal role models, bring in speakers from outside the company. Hearing their stories and learning about their struggles helps younger women open their minds to the juggle possibilities and take risks they would avoid otherwise. Getting timely help on how to choose wisely makes all the difference. Over the years, we saw an approximately 60% drop in women attrition post-maternity, a tangible outcome from the initiative. This sisterhood also supported each other in their moments of struggle with personal stories, sharing resources and providing them with the inspiration to soldier on.
2. Sponsorship – We need people in positions of power to actively create opportunities that further women’s careers. Sponsorship is one such initiative where leaders spot talent and actively sponsor their growth.
Herminia Ibarra, in her HBR article- A Lack of Sponsorship is Keeping Women from Advancing into Leadership, shares how top executives can contribute to the workplace equality agenda. While senior executives widely practice mentoring, they often give advice and support in private. Sponsorship is when the leader takes ownership of their protégé’s growth. The sponsor endorses their protégé’s candidature for a critical role succession and takes tangible actions to render support, invests in their development and make it work. Getting women connected to senior stakeholders in the organisation who could provide them with growth opportunities could be a starting point. Giving these women high stakes projects or assignments that will prepare them for more prominent roles in the future, based on calibre, is another option. Getting women to lead or contribute on global projects is another possibility. Nominating them to development assignments and executive education with global cohorts also helps them develop networks and gain exposure that grows their career and opens up their horizon. When women see the opportunities coming their way, they step up to the occasion and often exceed expectations.
While designing sponsorship programs for my clients, I emphasise that the program participants are invested fully into reaping benefits and endeavour to succeed. It is also essential to identify and map sponsors and proteges with compatible work styles. Plan program milestone reviews to learn what is working well and address what may not be working. It is not just the women who benefit when sponsorship programs work well. The sponsors gain manifold too. They learn from their protégés and grow their reputation as leaders who attract and develop talent. They also build a strong internal network of supporters which gives them leadership leverage. The idea is to keep moving, one stone at a time.
Paving the way to an equitable world will be a long haul. We need to do our bit through large and small interventions that work. The World Economic Forum 2021 Global Gender Gap Report estimates that it will take over a hundred and thirty-five years to bridge the gender inequalities at the current pace of progress. India ranks a low 140 amongst the 156 countries surveyed. Inequalities start with gender discrimination at birth, access to education and health, representation in politics and leadership to economic and career opportunities and much more. On this women’s day, I wish more women could stay invested in their chosen fields to pave a brighter and more equal future for their tribe.