4th D Woman

Kavitha Daniel interviews our President

Kavitha S Daniel talks to women who are working on their terms and managing a perfect balance of home and career. It might mean losing out on the perks of a job, but the contentment makes up for it

A decade went by before Chennai-based career woman/mother Suryakumari Duggirala found her sense of self once again. Having worked as an environmental analyst and a faculty member at MBA schools, this MPhil in Economics knew she could not whittle away her time at home.

“Dont get me wrong,” she says, “a housewife’s role is equally if not more challenging.” “But, this was me. I realised I needed a calling. It’s not the money, my husband is a marine engineer. But my mind started to vegetate sitting at home quibbling over setting curds,” she adds. She tried teaching in an evening college but that meant missing out on supervising her son’s schoolwork.

That’s when a friend told her about a placement firm offering women flexi-time jobs. And, Suryakumari grabbed the opportunity. Today, 10 years after her son’s birth, she seems to have found her métier. Working as a “consultant – quality analysis”, she whets all the daily correspondence sent by a leading multinational bank to their customers.

This 40-plus woman says, “I like my work and the salary is comfortable. But, what I love is the flexible hours. I started working five hours a day, from 9.30 am to 2.30 pm. My timings may have extended but they are fixed and I am not required to work undefined hours. This helps me to devote time to my 10-year-old son after he returns from school.”

Points out Suryakumari, “It is important to balance my home and work. I feel I’ve merged the borders of the housewife and career woman concepts. I am both. I am having my cake and eating it too.” In her happiness, this flexi-time employee is willing to brush aside any long-term financial benefits from the workplace.

Today, many women are blurring the boundaries of the stereotype image of homemaker and working women quite comfortably. Being qualified, intelligent women they are keen to use their mind in different ways. But, being mothers, they also have a strong sense of responsibility towards their children. And, since they have accepted the role of the “nurturer”, they are not about to give their ambitions any priority.

Take the case of Ameetha A, an MSc in Phytochemistry. This State Bank of India officer had to give up her 10-year-old career to follow her husband on his transferable bank job. “I had to make a choice—either it was his career or mine. I am very clear about who had to make the choice and I don’t mind at all. I think the onus lies with the woman in our society still,” says Ameetha, who has come to terms with burying her ambitions and keeping up with her two children’s study and entertainment schedules. Ironically, she adds that it is the girls who top in schools and colleges and they are the ones who end up giving it all up.

Interestingly, a survey on flexi-careers for women conducted by Avtar Career Creators, a Chennai- based placement firm, revealed that women who opted for flexi-jobs strongly believe in gender stereotypes. The survey, which interviewed women in cities like Pune, Tiruchy and Coimbatore, including major metros, pointed out that these women saw the male as the “primary provider” and are content to don the role of the homemaker. Forty per cent of the cases might view it as a stopgap arrangement but for the rest, this is the ideal choice.

The study concludes that the current generation of mothers (with children less than five-years-old) believes work-life balance as a critical aspect. A majority also work for the sheer interpersonal joy it brings them.

Rima Sinha, a journalist in Mumbai, working with a reputed channel, says, “I can work from home on my time. This makes a big difference as after pregnancy, I was quite weak but needed the money as well.”

The biggest benefits of this policy, of course, are self-satisfaction and space. Take the case of Seema Nayak, who works in a FMCG company in New Delhi, and opted for flexi timings to get some time for her family and herself. “After working for 10 years in an ad agency, I was burnt out.” She points out, “What is the point of making money if you can’t enjoy life a bit?” A typical profile of a woman, who pursues a flexi-job will be in the age group of 28-48 years with school-going children, who wants to re-enter the workforce, says Soundarya Rajesh, CEO, Avtar Career Creators, Chennai.

But, the flipside here is that the women in such situations end up short-selling themselves. “They might be marketing professionals but end up doing telesales,” she says. Other negatives might include companies not really keeping to their original commitment towards flexi-hours; the women might end up being dished out basic assignments or face hostility and discrimination at work. Does the concept of flexi-time jobs perpetuate the image of the woman as the nurturer? Saundarya replies, “It does not lessen the women’s image if she is the nurturer. I believe if a woman plans her life well, she can lead a more enhanced life.”

Luckily, in today’s workplace, companies are slowly getting comfortable about flexi-time jobs. Banking and BPOs, particularly, are major recruiters of such women, while IT companies are also not far behind.

Companies realising that employees with better lifestyles are more productive offer flexi-time benefits to attract good talent.

Suryakumari adds that the company stands to benefit because here they have an efficient workforce which they can use in well-defined, time bound assignments.

Scope International Pvt Ltd, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Standard Chartered Bank, one of the top banking back offices in the country, offers a number of flexi-time jobs for women. “We do it to provide employees with a ‘work-life balance’,” says Shashi Ravichandran, head of corporate affairs. Another finance company’s HR head, Priya, says, “We can’t lose out on our expert staff for reasons like pregnancy, children and ill health when they are willing to give us the same dedication form their home or by working lesser hours.”

There might be jobs which cannot be handled from home or by working flexi-hours. But, a flexi job might be the best bet for a seemingly majority of women mothers out there battling with the eternal dilemma of hearth vs mind.

Inputs: Ritu Swaroop in Mumbai; Suhita Roy in New Delhi

‘I can spend quality time with my baby’

After working for nine years in Planman, Shikha Ghosh decided to take a break and opt for a flexi job. It was the birth of her baby daughter that prompted her to take this step. “I wanted to spend quality time with my baby. I wanted to see her grow up, particularly in the initial years. My company was very accommodating and agreed to flexible working hours,” she says.

Shikha works for four to five hours a day and has also reduced her travel related work. “I have trained someone else to step in where long trips are involved. And, if the need arises, I work from home too.” She believes that loyalty to the company and hard work always pays. On the flip side, she feels that one has to compromise on the financial part a little but time spent with her daughter compensates for it. “Maybe, after my daughter starts going to school, I will come back to a normal routine. But, till then, I am very happy with the present equation.”

The Flexi-time Manager

What prompted you set up your company Avatar Creators, offering flexi-time jobs to women? I am a management graduate and an ex-employee of Citibank. After I had my child, I was typically pulled in different directions. But, my work was critically important to me since I was an achiever and a gold medalist from the University of Madras. I also felt a huge gap about not looking after my baby. I quit my job and started working from home.

Later, when I wanted to get back, I found that there was this huge stigma about women, who quit their jobs for the sake of their children. People begin to doubt your commitment. So I shifted to lecturing and worked as a guest faculty in MOP Vaishnav in Chennai. I started to co-ordinate my student placements in the college. I met different women when I went abroad to give a talk on “women and leadership” on the invitations of the US and UK governments. They all had the same concerns about balancing work and their kids. It was then that I decided to create a service targetted at mothers and single women caring for elderly parents.

Is this concept a first in India?

We are the first to come up with flexi-time jobs for women and have placed 350 women in the field of banking, HR, customer services, finance, advertising and IT. I also have an ongoing relationship with Pantaloons, Unilever and Standard Chartered for this purpose.

How does flexi-time work?

As a recruitment firm, we provide staff, who can work for a few hours per week on a flexi-time basis or on a part-time basis between 10am-2pm or 9 am to 1 pm. Or they can work from home or on a project basis. We are also targeting small companies trying to convince them about this concept.