What is holding women professionals from taking risks after a certain age?
Is there an expiry date to the success of a woman's career?
A few months ago, I remember watching a Malayalam film How Old Are You? in which the lead character wins a chance to meet the President of India for an interesting question her teenaged daughter posed the minister during a school visit.
The interesting question was -- "Who decides the expiry date of a woman's dreams?"
While the answer to the question is a quest in self discovery, in a recent report for the Department for Work and Pensions, UK-based pensions' expert and campaigner Dr Ros Altmann said she was told that "for women, talent progression stops around age 45."
We spoke to a bunch of professionals -- hiring experts, women leaders and trendsetters back home in India to understand if a woman's career really ends at the age of 40.
Men vs women: Is there a bias?
In India, human resource professionals often get briefs from their clients specifically requesting them to avoid screening female candidates for certain job roles.
But none of this is on paper or e-mail, since gender discrimination is against the law, says Delhi-based recruiting expert Nitin Advani whose start-up ManPower Technologies interviews employees for mid- and senior management roles across India.
Advani explains the bias from a hiring perspective.
"At the age of 40, usually women employees avoid working late nights, are reluctant to travel outside the home city, or taking up international projects for longer duration.
"When we interview women candidates between 35 and 45, we realise that majority of them are looking for fixed work hours so they can balance both work and family. Most of them are not willing to experiment or take up challenging assignments which usually works to their disadvantage."
Vidhan Chandra, hiring expert and founder, iSource Online Services, Pune agrees and adds, "Organisations also assume that women are not ambitious and won't be available to take up additional responsibilities. A lot of it is to be blamed on social perception. In majority of households, the male is considered the bread winner and the female's income is secondary. So it is okay if a woman takes a step back in her career."
"We are still quite far in our goal towards providing equal opportunities to all. For example, in Wimbledon, male tennis players get more than their female counterparts; in cricket too, men have a larger audience compared to women. Sometimes, these existing biases cloud our judgment and we assume that women are not willing to take risks or take up higher roles."
The challenges and barriers
There will be barriers -- social and organisational, says Savita Gaikwad, managing partner, Antal International, a global recruiting firm.
"Between the ages of 40 and 50, women go through menopause which slows down her physical abilities. If she is married and has a family to take care of, usually she is advised to take a break or go for voluntary retirement.
"Women tend to suffer in silence and take the most convenient way out because there are fewer options and her career comes secondary or perhaps doesn't even feature on the list of priorities.
"Very few organisations and families are sensitive to women's needs and suggest alternatives that will help her balance work and family.
"All this naturally has a deflating impact on a woman's career and mental health. Either she succumbs to it and eventually quits the job or ends up as a non-performing asset thus naturally damaging her career," explains Gaekwad.
Despite these challenges, it is important for women to be self motivated and fight through it, she says.
If there is anyone who can bring positive change, it has to be you, counsels Minal Deshpande, managing director, Deloitte India.
"Companies like Deloitte are consciously inviting women to take up new roles and giving them challenging assignments. Before pointing fingers at the management or society, ask yourself a few questions -- Are you hands on? Are you equipped enough to take on a higher role? What are you doing about it?"
A fact also remains that employees, particularly men are not used to seeing women in senior management roles. So, when a female employee leads the team, there is friction and for obvious reasons, she says.
"The way women leaders handle responsibilities are different from how men do it. The style of leadership is different, which might make some colleagues uncomfortable."
A woman leader needs to be clear about her career goals and not be daunted by negative criticism.
It is important to accept your limitations and not feel guilty all the time, adds Deshpande.
Sharing her own example, she says, "As the managing director, I am expected to socialise every alternate day -- meeting clients, networking and talking business. However, I prioritise and ensure that I attend only those (meetings) where I really have to be present. Even if I have to attend a late evening event, I meet the right people in whatever little time I spend there and try and wind up early. As long as you're getting work done, the style of leadership doesn't matter."
Are women to be blamed?
Manjiri Gokhale-Joshi, author of Bosses of the wild: Lessons from the Corporate Jungle and co-founder of Elephant Connect, a training and mentoring organisation and Maya CARE, a non-profit organisation working for senior citizens feels that professionals need to take risks, be prepared to make sacrifices in order to achieve something and be more proactive at work,"Joshi adds.
"It makes business sense for organizations to set an upper salary limit for each role.
"You may choose perform the same role for a long period and accept the upper limit as long as you are conscious that it is possible this role may become redundant. But for professional growth, it is essential to evolve through continuous effort at learning on the job (and outside), actively seeking additional responsibility and nurturing others in your team to take on your job, so that you and the team are ready for the next step.When people assign you a new or difficult task, it would be best to candidly admit you have never done it before but will try your best.
"If you succeed, you may discover a hidden skill or talent. If you fail, you have learnt what not to do!"
Joshi believes that good organisations are doing a lot to encourage employees to grow in their careers through proactive training and mentoring programmes.
She says, "As an organisation or manager that cares for its people, ask your employees what they want to achieve in life. The purpose of this activity is to help them reflect, set goals and focus on activities that will help them get there."
Among the greatest mistakes women make in their career is losing track of their career goals, not taking additional responsibilities and learning new skills and technology, feels Deshpande.
Complacency does great damage to a woman's career too, adds Joshi.
"The feeling that 'I'm here for life' will bring down your career prospects," Joshi notes, while sharing inspiring examples of enterprising women leaders like Indra Nooyi, Chanda Kochhar and the likes who broke stereotypes and changed the game for generations to see and follow.
Joshi, who also trains young and senior professionals in leadership and management practices through her venture Elephant Connect, urges women to change the way they look at tasks and deadlines.
The worst thing you can do for yourself, she says is saying: "I can't do it because I've never done it before' or "I won't do it because it is not my job!"
How organisations can help
In India, organisations like Tata Consultancy Services and Hindustan Unilever are not only encouraging women to take sabbaticals for family and academic reasons, but also inspiring them to rejoin the workplace after a break.
Joshi feels that organisations must review, train and mentor its employees to grow in their career.
"Every year, ask your employees what they want to achieve in life. The purpose of this activity is to make them realise what they're doing about it.
More importantly, value your employees, find out what their true potential is and try to encourage them with opportunities that will help them showcase and build upon their skills, she adds.
All the professionals we spoke to felt that it was unfair to hold it against organisations for not encouraging women leadership as there are plenty of role models across domains, who have both social and psychological constraints and are still reaching out for the stars.
If you're in the age 35 and 50, here are some tips to help you cope at work:
• Be pre-equipped for the role above you.
• Stop feeling guilty about your sabbatical.
• Be confident and accept of new responsibilities
• Stop saying 'I haven't done this before.'
• It's okay if you fail; at least you will learn something new.
• Set individual goals and align them with the organisational goals.
• Don't eat humble pie. Take credit for your hard work.
Lead image used for representational purposes only