Indian women want flexi-hours for work-life success

Marriage and childbirth are the biggest reasons why women in India quit work before age 30. They define success as attaining the right balance between work and personal life, and they want flexibility for attaining that balance.
Written by Swati Prasad, Contributor

Today is International Women's Day. If it was any other year, this day would probably not have had much meaning for me (I don't believe in giving names to days). But this year is different for two reasons...

One, for the crimes against women that have been highlighted by the global media as well as social media, following the Delhi gang rape of December 16. And two, for Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's diktat last week that puts an end to flexi-work for its employees.

The social media has played a very important role in highlighting the urgency in India to ensure the safety of women. The mass protests have truly revealed the power of the social media. It's a long haul though, before mindsets change, but a beginning has already been made--and that's real good news.

The other issue is that of flexi-work, and I wrote about it in my blog last week. ZDNet's senior editor Eileen Yu pointed out how Mayer's hugely unpopular step that bans home working may actually be a means of rebuilding employee camaraderie and a sense of belonging in the ailing company. But the criticism and the debate around this measure that followed only goes on to prove that in a globalized environment, flexi-hours is a necessity not just for individuals but also for companies.

Two years back, while doing a story on connectivity tools for rural India, I had spoken to Ajay Chaturvedi, founder and chairman of HarVa, a rural BPO (business process outsourcing) service provider. HarVa, short for "harnessing value in rural India", is a startup that focuses on skills development, BPO, community-based farming, and microfinance. It has presence in several states of India.

HarVa largely employs women for its rural BPOs. Most of these women are ill-educated, with some only having knowledge of alphabets. But according to Chaturvedi, women by far are keen workers, especially in jobs that "require patience and detail".

Over the last 20 years of my work-life, I have come across several men and women who share the same view as Chaturvedi. Personally, though, I do not believe in such generalizations. But marriage and childbirth do change a lot for working women, often putting them at a huge disadvantage as opposed to their male colleagues. That's true of women all across the globe. But in a country like India, where there is so much sexual discrimination and male chauvanism, the challenges before working women are probably even greater.

According to a report published in The Economic Times, there are 591.4 million women in India, out of which only 9.8 million are in the workforce. The annual attrition of women less than 30 years of age is 48 percent. Marriage is the biggest reason why women quit work before the age of 25, and childbirth or childcare is the biggest reason why women quit work before the age of 30.

Interestingly, a lot is changing at the workplace. A recent survey undertaken by professional networking site, LinkedIn, showed that an overwhelming 94 percent of Indian professional women--of a sample size of 400--felt they had a successful career.

"Women with more than six years of experience feel more satisfied with their professional lives as compared to those with lesser experience," the survey said. However, one in three women said they faced sexism at the workplace which was the highest across all the countries surveyed. The survey, titled "What women want @ work", was conducted across several countries.

Interestingly, a higher proportion of Indian women--at 93 percent--felt it was possible to have it all in terms of a career and family life. This was higher than the global average of 74 percent, the LinkedIn survey revealed. But when it comes to children and how they affect their career ambitions, Indian women were split. The study found 40 percent of those currently without children believed they would not slow down their careers, while the remaining 60 percent felt they would.

Managing a home, children, and work is definitely not easy. Most working women don't find it easy to give it all up once their kids are born. In fact, another survey points out that Indian women prefer flexi-hours.

Polled by AVTAR Career Creators and FLEXI Careers India, the survey of more than 1,000 working women found that 53 percent said their homes and careers were equally important. Interestingly, 98 percent of women respondents demanded flexi-hours for work-life balance. When it came to priority, 28 percent felt their career came first while 19 percent felt prioritized home before their career, the survey noted. The remaining 53 percent felt both work and home were equally important.

Ten years ago, earning a high salary was a dominating parameter for success. Today, the definition of success has changed. According to the LinkedIn survey, 45 percent of the women surveyed defined success as having the right balance between work and personal life.

If that is the new definition of success, the ecosystem needed to ensure success of working women will also evolve. This would, hopefully, mean more companies offering flexi-hours, higher maternity benefits, and professional daycare centers not just in urban India but also for women in villages. Because that's what women want!

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