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Mid-Life Career Challenges for Women

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Women at some point feel the need to take a break from their career to manage their family. Stepping back is simple. However, returning to the workforce is fraught with many complications. Some of these are systemic. Individual concerns such as a feeling of irrelevance and lack of confidence or readiness to return to work, a break in the learning curve, feeling ‘left-behind’ etc. play an equal role in preventing women from re-joining the work force. So what are the options she may have to rejoin work? How can she go about navigating these? Some important perspectives are shared by Dr Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy, Area Chair Marketing Head – Center for Women’s Leadership, Great Lakes Institute of Management.

I graduated from IIM-A in 1994. I worked in FMCG marketing and sales companies for 15 years. Around 2009, I started feeling the pangs of not being able to do justice to my own role as a mother and to my role as the head of marketing in the organization I was working in. I used to travel a lot, maybe 12 to 15 days a month. My son was hardly five to six years old. I felt that I was shortchanging his needs and putting my needs over his, because he could not have negotiating power or talk back. I thought I was taking advantage of that. Somewhere, I began to feel, “What’s the point in becoming a managing director at 40 if your son is not going to get enough of your time?”

A Break and a New Path

This began to gnaw at me for a couple of years. Then on January 30, 2009, I finally decided to take a break, without understanding or figuring out what I wanted to be doing for the rest of my professional career. I was hardly 36 at that time. I realized that it had to be something that would take forward my experience gathered till then. However, I wanted it on my own terms from a time point of view, because I realized that flexibility is very important for me. I stumbled upon IIT Madras, which was close to my house. I met the Chair Professor in Marketing and I told him my situation. He invited me for a brand management lecture, which I took based on my Nippon Paints experience. The lecture went very well because I used a lot of real-life examples. Students love to hear real-life examples from the industry.

After that, we had a chat, and he suggested that I might consider academics as a career. I was not fully convinced because I thought I had finished my share of academics after IIMA, and I was not looking at doing a PhD or anything. I said, ‘Let me come back.’ Then I travelled across the country and met a few people from different walks of life who had spent about 15 to 20 years in the corporate world before switching to the second part of their professional lives. Our generation had the luxury of having multiple careers thanks to the liberalization and opening of the economy in the 90s.

I met people who had become entrepreneurs and social workers, those who got back to childhood passions and those who took to academia or even politics after a corporate stint. I met about 15 people across the country and started taking notes. I realized that there is not much formal material available on the subject of mid-life career choices. I interviewed them. The story of Dr. Raju Ramasamy, who was then the Dean of Anna University, struck a chord with me because he had worked for 22 years in Railways. He went on to do his PhD at the age of 48 and then shifted to academia. As I spoke to him, academia began to appeal to me for a range of reasons.

It allowed me to take forward what I had learned so far and share it with the younger generation. It was probably less hectic in terms of travel, and I didn’t have to work long hours. Even if I did work long hours, it was more on my terms. There was no nine-to-five commitment. So I went back to my IIT Madras professor, and I told him that I was ready for it. I enrolled in a PhD program in 2010 and finished my PhD in 2014. I did my visiting faculty stint across a few IIMs during my PhD days as I didn’t want to waste the corporate experience that I had picked up. In 2015, I joined XLRI as a full-time faculty where I taught for a couple of years. For the last six years, I’ve been with Great Lakes as a Marketing faculty. This is my journey.

Research Findings on Mid-life Career Challenges

I also wanted to delve into the subject of mid-life career choices from a research point of view. I have distilled my learnings, both as a professional and as a trainer. I used to conduct leadership workshops for middle management women at XLRI for Reliance Group’s middle and top management.

We still think of a powerful man as a born leader and a powerful woman as an anomaly. After receiving similar levels of education, whether it’s from Harvard Business School or Great Lakes, eight to 10 years after graduating from B-school, women just seem to disappear from the workforce. As a result, very few are available for top management leadership. Only 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women; just 15% of board seats are occupied by women, and 14% of executive officers are women. Obviously, there is a talent crunch in terms of women’s representation. It is not because of their qualification or competence. It is just that the conditioning and life journey seem to be not very favourable to women continuing with their careers.

According to research, 47% of women take a career break at least once, and 70% never return to work. It is not only a loss for her and her family. It’s a loss for her children because a working woman is a terrific role model for children. It’s also a loss for the nation and the economy.

Reaching the Top

What can women do differently to continue their careers and reach the top? Mid-life is also the time when there are some peculiarities in a woman’s life. She has to deal with her biological clock versus her career clock, and a conflict arises. She is also expected to become a mother, and the baby probably needs her a lot more. That’s also the time when you have to ramp up your energy and presence at the workplace. There are more personal stakeholders in your life. You’re probably married in your mid or late 30s. You have a spouse, in-laws, and children, which also means you’re playing multiple primary caretaker roles.

Society is still tilted towards mothers being primarily responsible for ensuring that there is fresh food on the table or for their primary nurturing role in raising kids or taking care of aged and sick in-laws. The spouse may contribute, but the primary expectation is still from the lady, no matter how talented or accomplished she may be.

The Kaleidoscopic Career Model

The Kaleidoscopic career model is very interesting. It researched men and women who have looked at their careers longitudinally, over a few decades. They found that there is a clear difference between how a woman manages her career lifetime versus men. A woman starts off taking up challenging roles, just like men do. Somewhere around mid-life, a woman wants to balance multiple roles. In her later career stage, she seeks authenticity, which is figuring out what she can excel at and make a mark for herself in her life. However, for men, it is the other way around. They may start off with challenging role-seeking and then, around mid-life, they first seek authenticity and then balance.

There is nothing right or wrong about it. Probably, it has been wired that way. If you’re able to understand it and complement each other’s roles well in your life, then you can find great support from your working spouse. Mid-life is also the time when we start defining what career success means to us. The organization is not going to chart out a career path for very unique cases. It is probably male-centric because there are far higher numbers of men, and therefore the policies are all made with them in mind. Is a male lens even relevant for me to define my career success? All of this leads to you taking far more ownership of your own career, rather than leaving it to HR people.

Aspiration Deficit

When you seek answers to these simple yet difficult questions, there aren’t enough role models, especially senior women mentors in the organization. This results in what is called an aspiration deficit. It means many women simply give up. For them to negotiate, understand, become aware, and upskill themselves becomes quite tedious, especially if they do not have a supportive spouse or a supportive ecosystem at home. They are then considered those who lack ambition, which is a little ironic because if they had a strong support system, they would probably excel and perform better at the workplace.

This is our DNA helix model, which is a favourite of mine. Over time, a woman plays multiple roles, moving between one role and the other, across various situations. On the other hand, if you look at a man’s career, most of the time, it follows a linear trajectory over time. There’s a chance that he will reach a leadership position, if he works systematically at it.

Why is women’s representation in the workplace needed? If organizations are performing well without women, should we even worry? Yes, we should worry for a variety of reasons.

Women make up 50% of the population and are highly qualified, talented, live longer, and accumulate wealth. This means they are increasingly decision-makers at the household level. If you don’t represent them in the workforce, you are missing crucial insights from a decision-maker’s point of view.

We find very few women at the top. They bring diversity of thinking in style and action. Men and women have complementary skills that need to be harnessed together for the long-term growth of any organization. Several studies by leading companies like Catalyst and McKinsey have shown that women’s representation on boards leads to improved financial parameters like return on equity, profit margin, return on investment, higher operating results, and stronger stock price growth. Furthermore, companies have reported fewer bankruptcies, better corporate governance and ethical behavior, more competence in self-development, and integrity. So there is a clear business case for women to be represented at higher levels in the workforce.

Performance in 9 Dimensions

A study was conducted among two sets of organizations. One set had no women in top management, and the second set had three or more women in top management. The goal was to assess the company’s effectiveness across nine organizational dimensions. This was done with a sample of 58,000 people. Companies with women in top management returned better results in capability, leadership, external orientation, motivation, accountability, coordination and control, innovation, direction, work environment, and values. If this doesn’t emphasize the need for more women, what else would?

However, strong external conditioning still exists, and mothers are still expected to bring up children. Career-oriented women are not looked upon favourably. When you get married and have children, you’re expected to stay at home and raise them. If the child does not do well, the mother is blamed. The second thing is our own higher ownership of the role of a mother, and therefore going to any extent to fulfill that.

Altering Brain Conditioning

Is there any difference in brain anatomy between male and female children? There is a book written by Dr. Payal Kumar – “Unveiling Women’s Leadership.” The author claims that the human brain is not fixed but alters through experience and training. The brains of male and female babies have equal structure and patterns, but by the time they reach 20, social conditioning considerably alters everything. There is gender role conditioning, like car driving is for men, baby girls are given pink colour toys, or boys are expected to handle electrical work at home. So much role gendering is at play.

What can women do to alter brain conditioning? First of all, you need to have great cognitive clarity. You need to be around people who have a vision of holistic success with rationale, and more importantly, you must accept the trade-offs that you may have to make. Many women struggle with making trade-offs. The second is focused imagination. Train yourself to see pathways to success in your organization, in the organization you dream of joining, and in the role you want to acquire. Talk to people about it, maybe external mentors and support groups.

You must understand and accept that this is not only your problem but an institutional problem and a nation’s problem. Don’t shy away from seeking mentors. They don’t have to be senior people or women working in your organization. They could be mentors outside your organization or in forums like the MMA Women Business Forum. Seek senior individuals with experience in dealing with such issues who can provide proper counselling and guidance.

Barriers to the Top

Another piece of research was conducted among two different samples – female executives and CEOs, on what prevents women from advancing to corporate leadership. Many times women adopt a victim mindset, which doesn’t help their cause. We are often biased in looking at our own situation in a certain way, whereas the world might not view it that way. In the study, female CEOs felt that lack of significant general management experience or line experience impedes women from advancing to corporate leadership. That’s a significant takeaway.

Women not in the pipeline long enough is another finding. Companies say, “We want women leaders, but where are they? They simply disappear. If only they discussed their problems more and wanted to work through them, something could be done.” Many female executives feel that male stereotyping is a big reason why they’re not advancing to corporate leadership. But female CEOs don’t think this is the reason. There is a clear disconnect here.

Exclusion from informal networks: In many corporates, there is a lot of informal networking that happens after working hours. Women feel they cannot be part of it due to family reasons, personal time, etc. They may get excluded from key decisions that organizations make.

Inhospitable corporate culture: Many women feel that the level of ambition and aggression is too much for them to handle. It’s important for women to understand what CEOs expect from women executives who want to advance to leadership positions. They are looking for significant general management, broad-based knowledge, and the ability to persevere.

Tougher Barometer

There is research on the career strategies required for women to break the glass ceiling. Women have to consistently exceed performance expectations. This barometer is often tougher for women than for men. Women start with an inherent bias from some leadership quarters that they will give up when things get tough. They may have a backup or a family that is the primary breadwinner, and they are perceived as unwilling to stretch themselves. So it is essential for women to exceed performance expectations to demonstrate their commitment.

Second is developing a style that men are comfortable with. This was surprising to me. I have mostly worked in sales and marketing, which are very male-dominated fields. In FMCG and technology companies where I worked, women were always in the minority. But it’s important for men to see you as one of them. Don’t draw attention to your gender presence.

The third is taking on difficult and high-visibility assignments. These are often called glass cliff assignments, tough assignments given to women to test if they’ll succeed or not. These are challenging even for men, but women need to prove themselves in them to advance to higher leadership positions. Networking with influential colleagues, initiating discussions about career aspirations, developing leadership outside the office, and goal setting are some other factors.

Many of these strategies overlap with what men need to do to advance, but the extent to which women need to do them is often much higher. Women often need to prove that they have serious intentions about their career growth.

The Inspiring Sisters

All of us are aware of Indra Nooyi and Chandrika Tandon, sisters who’ve done well for themselves. Indra Nooyi was a global CEO of PepsiCo, and Chandrika Tandon is the Chairperson of ‘Tandon Capital Associates’ and was a senior partner at McKinsey. They believe that setting a clear goal is a starting point. Many of us don’t do that. We take things as they come, and we’re satisfied with whatever results that follow.

It’s important for women as they advance to raise other women below them. Nobody will understand the situation as much as you do. Take ownership of your career, especially the long stints, which are really your babies. No HR department or organization will understand your nuanced life situation well enough to put together a career strategy for you. Also, be aware of what’s happening around you.

Double Bind

There is a term called “double bind.” Women have a need to be liked, and they also want to be assertive. Men don’t care whether they’re liked or not. This is unique to women. You have to be aware of this. Are you making decisions because you want to be liked? Are you becoming emotional? Are you not asserting your point strongly enough? Are you falling into the trap of wanting to be liked?

Many organizations exhibit tokenism. They hire women leaders to show that they value diversity. Many times, women find themselves under extraordinary scrutiny. This can lead them to overperform or underperform, with tough trade-offs. You can’t have it all at the same time. You may achieve everything over time. So you need to understand the trade-offs you must make.

Confidence Gap

Women often suffer from a confidence gap, regardless of their qualifications or competence. Men who are 75% to 80% qualified may apply for a job with confidence, while a woman who’s 95% qualified might hesitate before applying. Women are often self-critical. They think twice before seeking a promotion or a pay raise. This doesn’t come naturally to them. Women should work on these aspects. They should broaden their business knowledge and not limit themselves to technical know-how.

Looking back, whether taking a break to be with my child, figuring out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, or writing a book, I realize that everything adds up. You need to ask for help. We are often bad at this. In the last 10 years, I have consciously surrounded myself and befriended senior women I respect and asked for advice. Be adaptable. Play multiple roles in varying hierarchies and different locations. When you enter a new role, it’s like starting a new career. You cannot compare yourself with someone who has been doing it for 15 to 20 years. So be kind to yourself.

Give Time to Bloom

Also, try part-time work before committing to something full-time. Before entering academia, I was a visiting faculty and gave guest lectures. If someone wants to get into full-time social work, I would strongly advise them to engage in community work on weekends to see if it suits them. Never lose sight of your ambition. The timing of what you want to achieve might not be in your hands, but you need to persevere. Resilience and optimism are key. If you have these qualities, you will find your way.

Ela Bhatt, the founder of SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association), says that feminine leadership is what the world needs today. She refers to Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violence and advocates an approach where organizational growth is based on values, not just hard goals. Inclusivity, not divisiveness, should be promoted. It’s not about favouring a few at the cost of others. Look at the collective aspirations of individuals and don’t set benchmarks for the institution based solely on your own benchmarks. Be open-ended about time. A long-term collaborative network doesn’t operate on the timelines we desire. A butterfly becomes beautiful in its own time. So give it the time it needs. This promotes peace and collaboration over harsh competition. Women have innate strengths. Build on them instead of trying to mimic others. Being yourself is the way to succeed.