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Analysis: Sniff Behind That Snot

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I’m as fierce a mum as the next milk banking ‘lactivist’ but when it comes to postnatal career calls, I believe it is solely a mother’s prerogative. I may not agree with Marissa Meyer’s cab ride to work straight from the labour room but back-fence nattering and column inches given to discussing the same are all too astounding. Either people want such women to fail or cannot get over the success of it all, haven’t a clue, but what gets me all hot and bothered is if tears, pain and joy belong to the mother, then surely the first domino tumbling in that complex trail of decisions ‘to go or not to go’ must be for her taking too. Companies have to trust that the woman they hired, to make critical decisions for the firm, can make this one soundly enough.

Not that they should expect the same woman to come back to her job, breast pads under business suit and unlikely to have changed one bit. Far from it! Mothers return to work ridden with guilt, hormones, pressure, emotions, desire to prove that they are indispensible and can outdo their last stint, and sure enough they multitask and make it work with the baby compartmentalised snuggly in their mental folio. Should we not then be viewing maternity leave as a leadership development course that equips women even better for their workplace? Wouldn’t the best and most productive employers be those who see the complete person, kids and all?  I am gobsmacked that an MNC bank recruiting high-flyers like Kalpana, who have taken advantage of the best education, would actually encourage them to abandon their careers (and contributions to the bottom line) in favour of changing nappies at home!

Growth in aspirations, wages, average spend, lifestyle and inflation coupled with a decline in family incomes across India are all putting many more Kalpanas in this position every time they decide to take up their ovaries on the offer.  Whether they go back to give meaning to their lives or simply to collect a paycheck, children are still conceived to enrich lives not enslave conscience.

Kalpana’s boss reminds me of erstwhile Margaret Thatcher who was so tough on new stay-at-home mums, that she was reluctant to give them tax breaks for she thought they ‘lacked get-up-and-go and gumption’. Need I remind, that was the eighties. I for one went back to work almost a year after my child was born and still found it challenging to serve as a director across European, West-Asian and African markets whilst juggling childcare, pick-ups, flight delays and traumatic hours away from my little one. I took my call to take a sabbatical, based on my set of considerations. Neither husband nor company persuaded me into doing so, hence I am at peace with it. For Kalpana, that decision wasn’t hers – which is what makes all of this is so unfair!

The issue is complex, subtle, difficult to tease apart for there may well be a rich collection of anecdotal reports or 'company policy' papers on gender diversity. There is virtually no hard data clearly outlining issues getting in the way of women’s progression. Be it structural issues (policies and work practices) that create those barriers or personal ones (values, beliefs, stereotypes, responsibility of making marriages work, having kids on time) that bias perceptions about women’s ability to lead effectively — either way qualified women often simply opt out.

Sure it doesn’t apply to Kidwais, or Sandbergs, in my opinion they are outliers, and while their actions may make splashy headlines, their situation doesn’t apply to the Kalpana Dixits. They can hire cooks, nannies, nurses, drivers, dog walkers and personal trainers, or set company policy to allow infants at work or buzz back everyone early from maternity leave as Meyers just did, does it matter? 'Lean-in' all you want, the playing field is neither the same, nor as even.

Kalpana, who was senior enough to manage clients, surely should have had her sense and wits about her, or have alarm bells go off long ago, based on the discussions she was constantly having. She should have known better to catalogue any discrimination, note sidelining tactics, save emails, references, dates and details of phone calls, and kept a timeline of events, should it be needed for a tribunal or case. A strongly worded letter with her timeline, for instance, could be a good start in reminding a company of their legal obligations. When a company breaches a code of trust — trust that the employee will be dealt with fairly come what may – it is asking for trouble. But it is upon the employers to challenge that culture and attitude, with the same 110 per cent that they give to their work.

No wonder large reputable companies have taken to employing the services of maternity coaches to advise on family-friendly compromises and to mentor women returning from maternity leave. Business psychologist Ros Taylor, in her book Confidence at Work, suggests women can appoint an amenable peer as a "buddy" before they go on leave. "They can keep you in touch with what's going on at work and, just as important, gossip too, so that you don't feel cut off when you return." If possible, it may help to go out for occasional drinks or lunch with your colleagues or ‘buddy’ every month or two, so that you keep abreast of any management changes that could affect you.

In addition, female employees can set up an informal support group and senior managers harness it to promote the recruitment, retention and progression of women. Top companies nowadays offer workshops for women about to go on maternity leave, support during their absence and mentoring on their return, to ensure most of them join back – not only does it make better business sense over employing fresh starters but is a no-brainer when it comes to higher returns. Geffel’s a leading bank but seemingly, not so good at common math.

Kalpana not only faced discrimination and constructive dismissal, but also became a "victim" in the process. Where she should be enjoying motherhood or work or both, she is now consumed by the injustice of what had happened. Sometimes, a promising career elsewhere is the best way to get even and get ahead.

Maybe, Sundari did Kalpana a favour who knows, but Sundari sure did herself none.

The author was brand director, Hewlett-Packard, EMEA, at Publicis London. Now based in Chicago, USA, she is guest faculty at ICSC European Retail School, and an examiner at the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM), UK