Despite being one of the hottest startup destinations in Asia, India throws up some skewed statistics when it comes to gender. Only 27% of the workforce comprises women, and only nine percent of startup founders are female. Working in a startup, especially early-stage, demands long hours from employees and this becomes a contentious issue for mothers. However, a number of Indian startups are keen to flip this norm by enabling women to return to the workforce, especially after maternity breaks.
According to a 2012 report in Strategy&, India has among the highest rates of economic gender disparity. Nearly 5.5 million women enter the workforce each year, but are compelled to leave their jobs for various reasons ranging from gender discrimination, lack of childcare support and cultural restrictions.
Online portal JobsForHer, which connects women looking to restart their careers with companies seeking talent, conducted an online survey for women re-starters, which revealed that 38% of women cited lack of childcare opportunities as the primary obstacle to returning to work. Founder and CEO Neha Bagaria says, “There needs to be an ecosystem that makes it easy for women to return to work after a break. Maternity and childcare shouldn’t be a deterrent to a woman keen on pursuing a career.”
Bangalore-based JobsForHer works extensively with companies such as Philips, Mindtree, Aditya Birla Group, Barclays, Shell and Citi India among others to help women get back to work. Now, JobsForHer is working with more than 2,500 startups in India as well, including Nestaway, Capital Float, Indus, AppleTree, Concern India and SmartOwner among others to attract and retain female talent.
Bagaria says, “Startups face several challenges in recruiting experienced talent. JobsForHer enables startups to widen their access to talent by opening their doors to women returnees and help them achieve their recruitment as well as diversity goals. Women returnees form a pool of highly capable and experienced talent which can bring diverse thinking into startups. Moreover, they represent a pool of talent that can join startups on an immediate basis which is invaluable given the pace of startups and their urgent requirements.”
By providing short-term contracts or freelance opportunities to women, the startup ecosystem can benefit greatly. Several women returnees prefer flexibility rather than working from the confines of an office. This arrangement would be beneficial to startups as well as providing flexible roles that help reduce infrastructure costs and attract highly experienced talent within budget.
India’s Maternity Benefit Act of 1961’s latest amendment increased maternity leave from 12 weeks to 26 weeks. While this was seen as a welcome move for India’s corporate sector, women working in small-scale businesses and startups expressed concerns over being able to return to work, given the rapid pace of organizational changes, increasing workloads and the need for dynamic skillsets.
Startups, much like major technology companies in India, are intent on retaining workplace diversity and gender equality. “Coming back to work after a long break is never easy,” explains Chhaya Sharma, associate vice-president of human resources at Bangalore-based fintech startup Capital Float. “Employees are expected to come up to speed with developments within the company, changes in the industry and even the role they are performing, as these are dynamic in nature. We begin our integration process by ensuring women return to their relevant role. We offer flexible working hours, as we understand the challenges of a young mother are different from others. As our employee strength grows, we are also looking into providing crèche services to working mothers in the near future. A collaborative approach between the employer and employee would also result in lower retention, higher engagement and an overall positive experience for employees.” Capital Float has more than 600 employees across 20 locations, with at least one out of every five employees being women.
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Online marketplace for home rentals Nestaway has identified the creation of a “workplace without discrimination” an area of focus for the year 2018. The Bangalore startup is working with JobsForHer to help women who have taken long career breaks to return to the workforce. Co-founder and CEO Amarendra Sahu says, “We are a three-year-old company and have started to scale in the past 18-24 months. Our workforce is 600+ right now, with 18% made up of women. Our endeavor is to bring this up to a more equitable mix.”
Nestaway is working on identifying roles and functions that provide women more flexibility, and allowing women to come back to work in a phased manner. In addition, the company is planning for exclusive hiring events made for women keen to return after taking breaks.
Despite legislation and extensive corporate diversity outreach programmes, the movement to bring women back into the Indian workforce is fairly new. But businesses are seeing immense value in being able to attract and retain female talent, and are working towards implementing policies to boost numbers of women in the workforce.
Several initiatives have been initiated by major corporates and technology companies, which have paved the way for smaller businesses and startups to incorporate similar initiatives for their own employees. Accenture’s Returning Mothers Programme includes more than 600 maternity leave coaches, who support new mothers to successfully transition from maternity breaks to work. In FY 2017, more than 94% of women in Accenture India who were on maternity leave returned to the workplace.
Global technology major Thoughtworks runs an outreach programme called Vapasi (return in Hindi) intended to provide female software developers who have taken breaks an intensive deep-dive into object-oriented programming through a four-week boot camp. In the past year, 22 participants completed a four-week boot camp in Hyderabad, one was offered a fulltime position, three completed internships and became fulltime employees and three others went on to find jobs in other tech companies.
With such initiatives, women can be encouraged to believe that corporate India is gender neutral and re-enter the workforce in bigger numbers.