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Case Study: A Bit Of Struggle, A Lot Of Character

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Shipra Goel was confused. she had resigned as marketing manager last month from Carre Hindustan, but Hemant Johar, the managing director, had been unhappy with her decision. Shipra, who had made the decision after a lot of thought, now felt unsure.
 
Shipra's husband's job profile had changed, and his new regional responsibilities were going to keep him in Europe three weeks a month. She felt her children would need a steady, accessible, 24/7 parent as would her husband seek that assurance for the kids. Shipra and her husband were both MBAs, they were a nuclear family, were committed to living well, and to being sensible parents. So, the decision to pause her career had of course caused her to miss a few heartbeats, but not in a manner that made her miserable.

 "In India, organisations even today view your CV with disdain if you have a list of employers, and the image gets worse if you explained that with maternity or spouse."

Sitting with her aunt Anuradha Jaiswal at Barista, she said, "Way back when we were students, it was Tushar who supported my MBA fees by doing two jobs - so that I could climb some more ladders. Today, my being 'available' on call will help his career and give him peace of mind. Also, with him being in Paris for almost the entire month, our kids could get disoriented with a single parent who is preoccupied. And I know, Tushar will be in this job for at least three years till the legal matter is resolved. So, in a single sentence, 'I am pausing my career to transfer energy to the other belt which is on a difficult schedule'.

Anu: Then what is bothering you? If you are clear about your decision, why this looking back and fretting?

Shipra: Last week, Hemant met Nandita, a consultant at Heads Up, who has been talking to Hemant about Carre creating a flexi job policy for me. Hemant is so taken in by the idea. But the idea of flexi working has raised a lot of dust and debate. Ever since Hemant sent out his email on flexi-jobbing, CCs are flying around with everyone's perceptions and feelings. Suddenly, I am seeing that men who were my buddies until last week are not sounding inclusive and encouraging, but nterrogative and sceptical. Maybe I am being sensitive, but now the conversation is about 'what can we give her to do?' I worry Anu. I fear they would saddle me with work that I may not be happy doing. If I wanted to work, would I not have found a solution?

Anu: I understand. In my opinion, eight out of 10 times, organisations are unhappy letting their women go; but 10 out of 10 times they do not know what to do about it. I feel if organisations had a meter to know a woman's mind during her career pauses, they will not be fretting.

Shipra: I might argue that, Anu. But wait, Hemant's daughter Sangati is also joining us. Sangati is also taking a break and Hemant is very upset. She is a level-headed girl and it will be nice to know where she has derailed. When Hemant told me he was getting Sangati to examine the flexi option, I thought it would be nice to hear her story too.

Sangati joined them and Shipra did the introductions.

Sangati: Hey, thanks for this invitation! I am very happy to meet you both. My dad praises you so much Shipra, I had to meet you one day.


Shipra: These praises become expensive, because they somehow seem to comin an idea of what is 'brilliant'. Consequently, brilliance does not include one who wants to make choices away from mainstream career!

Sangati: Yes, I know that dichotomy. I need to pause my career, and my immediate boss is giving me 'that' look, which I read as 'I should not trust women to hold on to a job'… I don't know if you feel what I feel; but I am deeply into equity analysis and am trying to attain greater heights in the field. So for me, it is not about 'holding on' to a job; if it's not Millichamp Tay (M-Tay), it well could be HSBC or ADB. Dad, however, feels I should value my position at     M-Tay and get my position back. Frankly, I don't see how that matters. Yet, I can see where his anxiety lies. 

Shipra: I tend to agree, but then in India, organisations even today view your CV with disdain if you have a list of employers, and the image gets worse if you explained that with maternity or spouse. Yes, if you are determined to find your spot under the sun, you will find it, sceptical employers notwithstanding! I only wonder how you plan to do justice to building your career away from the field.

Sangati: I am hopeful of being able to work with an equity blogger. The experience is terrific. It's two hours a day just to do his spreadsheets and analyses. That I can never learn in an MNC bank. Because this blogger has a huge fan following who are not placid sorts; they argue his analyses, and I am supposed to vet all that and develop his arguments for the blog… see? I also have an offer from an ad agency to do some corporate finance advertising ideation for them. I will be honing my skills, feeling self actualised, in great touch with the equity market, reading Mr Men books and, God willing, soon Little Miss books as well, if all goes well!

Shipra: (laughing) Yes, sure. But how do you plan to get back to mainstream? You know they won't touch you for the meagre experience that all this provides! Then again, why waste a good break doing so much for so little?

 

"Yes, a number of women give up in suppressed anger; but I feel if you really are passionate, nobody can stop you, not even your anger. Not even debating colleagues and discouraging bosses."

Sangati: Just yesterday Nandita called. Her team has suggested that I could get a senior role at The Grinch Bank in Delhi working twice a week. Now that could be interesting. But I also wonder, why should the relationship work? Grinch's MD does not know me... why should he believe in my credibility? The way I see it even as an employer myself, a new company would never create a position for a part-time employee, especially at a senior level. Would my dad? I am not sure…

Shipra: I guess that is where my staying on as a flexi gal at Carre can be easier. But flexi-jobbing at my employer's has led to lot of debates among my colleagues such as: If they give part -time to one, they will need to give everyone; how is Shipra herself going to deal with a diminished image? Then she won't be senior management by definition. Is she ready for this? And when she comes back after 5-6 years, will the management then connect with her greatness? After all, management teams and contexts change; will it be fair to hold them to a commitment made in the past? My point is how much fretting is happening over procedure and process and almost nothing about 'is this in line with the individual's dreams?'

Anu: Yes, employers will continue to look askance at a gap of 4-7 years and make all kinds of allusions to your commitment. But then that is why Sangati's interim career plans are valuable. And I am suggesting the same to Shipra too. Look, there are all kinds of women. If you have that fire in your heart, all that is needed is to keep stoking it. Two hours a day of working for the blogger? Sounds terrific. It is enough to be able to come back to changing diapers with a lovely smile. I think the most important thing is to be happy about whatever you are doing. Hence, I like your operative word: choices.

Today, you are at a strange crossroad: where choices and conveniences are tremendous, but uniquely, the employer fraternity has not recalibrated its mindset. And till the time they see you pulling it off well after few years, they will not be able to recalibrate their mindsets, perhaps because of their past experiences.

Shipra: Are we allowing for organisations to remain insensitive?

Anu: Look, if I see the workplace from the standpoint of the woman worker then yes, it does seem like they are insensitive. But, from the standpoint of an employer, I see the woman as being unpredictable! All relate to one's experiences. I have seen that men who have hardy wives tend to see other women as tough and hardy; and these men usually create solutions. today, with all the technology out there, it would be shocking if we insist that the only committed woman worker is one who trips over her baby's milk bottle and lands up at work at 9 am! Sometimes, it is necessary to look at deliverables too.

Shipra: You had a bad time too Anu, and it is a wonder you managed so well. I didn't complete the introduction Sangati. Anu is 54 and got married during her articleship with a firm of chartered accountants and her husband was, well… 'not enabling'.

Anu: (smiling) There was, let us say, passive aggression. We being middle class also means we have illusions about who we are. Yes, I got into a mess for a bit. My husband travelled every week. The family insisted that I should accompany him. So, we had a problem. Now, this is my point: Back then, 'choices' was not an option. My downslide came as a function of my bitterness. I said: 'very well, then I will do nothing!' Anger is justified, but should not be nurtured, you see. But I thought I would prove a point and soon everyone would come and make it all right.

I was angry with my parents for the family I was married into, angry with my husband, angry with life, angry that nobody was helping… and I said, 'Fine! I won't work. Go, take that!' And I thought I had punished them all. Truth was nobody got punished except me. And I spent 14 years angry, bitter and frustrated. It was my 13-year-old son who prodded me. He had watched some documentary on Anandibai Joshi, India's first woman doctor in 1886, and said, "How are you worse off than she was, ma?" And that in fact woke me up. I went back to my firm, worked one year, completed my articleship at 38, and started working from scratch!

Sangati: Yes, a number of women give up in suppressed anger; but I feel if you really are passionate, nobody can stop you, not even your anger. Not even debating colleagues and discouraging bosses. If you chose not to pursue your career, it is because you did not deeply want it. That is why I want the world to stop making a big issue about pursuing a career. I think we need to start becoming accepting of people who do not want to hold on to a career. That will make it easier on them. Automatically, the number of women on the system truly chasing their careers will reduce to a manageable lot.

 Shipra: And that in turn will help sharp focus on developing a career policy for the others. She has a point. The thing is that HR does not sift according to psychographics. I for one am not fickle. But I believe life needs me now to attend to other aspects of my life. Just because I choose to step off the rollercoaster, I don't become 'un-brilliant'. A system that worships me for staying on, not giving up, and decries me for stepping off, cannot be a dependable system. I love my husband, my kids, my career and my hobbies - quilting and photography. I am not anxious to prove anything. But it annoys me that line management at Carre is discussing my capability and brilliance in the context of my decision.

Anu: Many people are uni-dimensional and that causes them to respond in the only way they know, Shipra. Are you hurt about having to take this break?

Shipra: No. I know what I should do now. But I have been associated with Carre for nine years, and we have had a great time together. As long as I was there, I never once felt discriminated or judged by gender. Today, when I am leaving, all the talk is pointing to a gender debate. But it never was so in the past - not even when I had to leave work early, take a day off, nothing. It is just now that the flavour is different. Sangati, how have you dealt with this transition?

Sangati: I am the boss of Sangati Inc. I control my time and my energy. On a day-to-day basis, I decide when to attend to my family, my garden, my work, my reading. I think I am wise enough to know my activity units. I would be an idiot if I had to give 80 per cent of my time to career and 20 per cent to my family. If I am imbalanced as a human, how do you think I would be as a manager? So if I am taking a break, it means that I have thought it through and not pausing on impulse. Yet, I am being labelled and judged as whimsical! Please note, no one is saying so in words, but you can hear!

Anu: It is not important to be known as resilient, professional, brilliant, efficient or versatile. It is more important to be all this. And if you are passionate about your career, you will keep cutting your path as you go along. And if you are not passionate about your career, it is ok… women need to feel ok about all this. Somehow these definitions have all got warped by the media definition of who a successful woman is.

Just stay in touch with your function, refresh, renew, upgrade, build new skills. When you are ready to return, the organisation will know your goodness. You won't need to market yourself. Good organisations have the knack of being able to tell. But one caveat: when you move from being full to flexi - be prepared, numerous issues crop up. In my case, as I was already on a weak wicket at home, the office scenario was double whammy, and I was depressed for a very long time; for example, stuff like being left out of daily chatter, or they would forget about me during office celebrations, or they stay in touch only related to work.

Working flexi is in fact tough on the mind - you get isolated. At home, the demands increase, you will be seen as 'she is keeping herself occupied'. No one will come on time; memsaab aap to ghar pe hi ho na! I had to tell my AC service man: "I work out of home for my convenience, not yours!" At work, they ignore you because you are out of sight. And the strange thing is everyone thinks you are sitting at home and having fun. So, if you ask for 10 days off, your boss will gripe. If you are thinking flexi, know this: women who wish to work flexi need a lot more skills than regular working women.

Sangati: I think organisations should develop a policy for hiring women, and then the inner rules for career paths. Next, do a serious exit interview with women managers to establish why she has chosen to step off. Is it baby nurture time? Is it time off to recharge? Is it boredom? Is it inability? Next, create a track for those women who they would like to invest in, and let them know that they would like to have them back.

 

"It comes down to wanting solutions. A lot of companies are waking up, but then the effort they are willing to put in is directly proportionate to the number of women they have at senior levels."

I am not sure an deal with 'it is ok to not want to pursue your career'. Organisations are career machines, not humans. So, if you are not career committed they are not going to gush. But - and this is my modification of your statement - even during a career you will take time off to sort life out. Organisations have to create the flexibility in their own expectations to factor this in.

I am not allowing anyone to stick bills on me. My boss's opinion is more to do with his prejudices. Eckhart Tolle says, "Prejudice is remaining identified with a concept, not with the human being." The concept that the woman lacks commitment needs to go, and it will when organisations are willing to zero base their opinions about their women managers and not randomly extrapolate.

Shipra: (laughing) Likewise, a lot of preconceived ideas about 'commitment' also need to go. Like working late is commitment, and so forth. But it will pass. A lot is getting redefined out there. But your point is valid, that organisations should have a policy for shepherding the careers of some kinds of women. What I find is at Carre, Hemant is committed to developing a path for such women, but not the line managers. They come with their litmus papers developed in the 16th century and pass verdicts.

Anu: This is an arduous path. It requires passion, determination and conviction above all. No organisation is going to hit pay dirt in the first round. Developing a policy on women is not like instant CSR that you see these days. It requires a lot of study on women, and their circumstances and the minds of your star lady managers. And then have a one-to-one dialogue, share mind and values, offer support, state expectations… and then put it down as policy. It is a lot of struggle! And I say this: organisations that do not have the strength or stamina to struggle to find enabling solutions, cannot become institutions.

Sangati: Spot on! It comes down to wanting solutions. A lot of companies are beginning to wake up, but then the effort they are willing to put in is directly proportionate to the number of women they have at senior levels, which is not saying anything, now is it!

Anu: My mother would say 'Some struggle is good for building character'. I say that organisations that are willing to struggle to enable their women will by example, build better men along the way. Because struggling to enable will become a way of life, a religion.

Classroom/syndicate discussion
Is ‘intelligent woman' an oxymoron outside the precincts of the workplace?

casestudymeera at gmail dot com