encouraging women to return to work: what can your organization do about it?

encouraging women to return to work: what can your organization do about it?

Lori Taylor, a Goldman Sach’s employee, took a six and half year break from work and was apprehensive about her re-entry into the workforce. However, Goldman Sach's returnship program eased her transition by helping her update her skills and hit the ground running. Today, she is a vice president in the bank's risk division. Unfortunately, not all working women are as lucky as Lori. Women returning to work often face a slew of stereotypical objections – related to their age, the amount of time they were out of the workforce, and their capabilities and skill sets.  

A World Bank report shows that 19.6 million women fell off the labor map in the latest census as compared to the previous one. While there are many reasons why women take a break from work such as marriage, medical illness, childbirth or change in profession, workforce reentry invariably poses unique challenges for women. They are under pressure to establish their commitment to work and demonstrate that their skills and capabilities have not eroded during the break. For women who return to the workforce after childbirth, there’s the added challenge of scaling the ‘maternal wall’.  Women’s gross earnings have been shown to drop by 30% after their first child, and over the long term, mothers earn 20% less.

The challenges faced while returning to work are one of the main reasons why female leadership development programs fail. Several studies have shown that having a higher percentage of women in executive positions makes it easier for organizations to further attract relevant female talent.

Given this backdrop, there is much that organizations can do to smooth the way for women to return to work.

Why it’s important to implement an effective return to work program?

Indian women contributed to around 17% of the economy’s GDP in 2017, well below the global average of 37%. A McKinsey Global study estimates that India could increase its GDP by upto 60% by 2025, if women contributed equally to the economy. Encouraging women through an effective return to work plan is beneficial both to the employees and the business. While women benefit from a renewed lease of financial, social and psychological independence, businesses benefit in various ways including:

  • Superior financial outcomes – Companies with greater gender diversity are likely to drive better financial outcomes as compared to others. A study on the Impact of Gender Diversity on Indian Firms’ Financial Performance, shows that increasing the number of female directors had a significant positive impact on ROE.
  • Positive impact on teams – Gender inclusivity has a positive impact on team processes as the presence of women has been shown to improve collaboration among team members.
  • Access to a wider talent base – Gender diversity is important to modern employees and organizations that lack a diverse gender base might be missing out on a qualified talent pool. A study by Glassdoor found that 67% of job seekers look at workforce diversity when evaluating an offer.
  • Better understanding of customers – Companies with better gender diversity and inclusivity are able to deliver effectively to their customers as women tend to seek diverse perspectives that better represent their customers.

What employers can do to ensure a smooth transition

Returning to the workplace after an extended break can be both intimidating and challenging. Stigma associated with resuming work after a lengthy break, limited opportunities, fear of acceptance by colleagues, pressure to succeed, difficult working hours, lack of an inclusive work culture – these are just some of the many constraining factors influencing women’s decision to return to work. Understanding the barriers to re-entry in your sector and promoting suitable women's program ideas can significantly ease their transition. Here are four best practices to keep in mind while developing an effective return to work plan

  • Set up a returnship program: Creating a returnship or career comeback program is one way to establish a dedicated channel aimed at helping women re-enter the workforce after a hiatus. Returning women might have a skills gap, especially in today’s rapidly changing technological landscape, that must be addressed. Returnee programs offer a platform to provide on-the-job training, ensuring adequate re-skilling/-up-skilling in areas such as new practices, technologies and processes at the workplace. Amazon India is a great example of a company doing this right. It launched Rekindle, a program aimed at luring back women who go on a break. The program offers on-boarding, mentoring, job-based learning and flexible work options to suitable candidates, thereby breaking down some of the barriers that prevent women from re-entering the corporate world.
  • Make communication and training central to inclusivity initiatives: Often, organizations with great diversity and inclusion initiatives miss the opportunity to effectively communicate them to their employees and the outside world. Ensure that your website, social media platforms and recruitment messages reflect your organization’s inclusive strategy. It’s equally important to sensitize managers and existing employees on return to work policies through mandatory training programs. Such programs are critical to creating awareness and helping employees better understand and support the return of their female colleagues.
  • Understand the specific workplace needs of returning women: To implement effective policies that address the concerns of women returning to work, you must first understand their challenges and needs through fact finding initiatives. Next, build a certain degree of flexibility into work arrangements to ensure their successful return. Begin with simple initiatives such as offering limited working hours, providing quality child-care and nursing facilities on premises, and safe commuting options such as pick-up and drop facilities. Genpact: Career 2.0 does just this. The company’s “Returning Moms” program includes work-from-home options, “stork” parking and day care assistance, in addition to flexible work schedules.
  • Create an official support network: Consider establishing a dedicated channel for returning employees to voice their concerns and seek guidance. For example, Paytm- The leading payments provider established an email helpline to support women employees and address their queries and concerns. In addition to forming a similar channel, recruit HR practitioners, managers and  leadership team members to form an in-house support group that offers training, mentoring and guidance to help returning women employees perform confidently in their roles and succeed in the organization. In fact, 79% of women would consider a mentor helpful when returning to work but only 8% get one. The support group  can also act as a platform for peer-to-peer networking for returning women as they try to assimilate into the workplace.

Often, women develop many valuable skills during their time away from work. Experiences such as volunteering, freelancing, pursuing higher education or working in another field result in transferable skills. Organizations that design recruitment processes aimed at unearthing such skills along with a flexible, supportive and positive workplace, will be able to better attract and engage women returnees.

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