“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair”,
-Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to the US Congress.
Many women are forced to leave the table altogether as they drop out of the workforce when they hit their 30s: their mid-career. Men are almost never. Nevertheless, when women fight to stay put, they either feel stuck in their career trajectory, or are left burnt out and undercompensated. In a 2021 study conducted by Deloitte India, nearly 6 in 10 (57%) women in India say that their careers are not progressing as fast as they’d like; much higher than the global average of 42%. This stagnation results from many factors such as absence of formal mentors for women, non-inclusive behaviours resulting from sexism, deteriorating mental and physical health, and major life events like marriage, and childbirth. How then, can we strike a balance between women either leaving the workforce, or staying but feeling unsatisfied with where they are in their professional journeys?
“The biological clock and the career clock are in total conflict with each other”– Indra Nooyi
At TAQ therefore, we seek to find solutions to such challenges so women can continue in their professional journeys and build long, fruitful careers. Therefore, while we believe that systemic and structural changes are paramount in ameliorating the state of women at work, how can women as well, engage with the process effectively on an individual front? Here are three strategies we recommend that women in their mid-careers need to master so that they can fulfill their career aspirations.
- Build your tribe
While women receive benefits from programs like maternity leaves, development opportunities for women – like formal mentorship programs – are often missing. This further impacts how women navigate challenges at work that are unique to them. For instance, working mothers are not given bigger projects or their capability to perform well is repeatedly scrutinised. Consequently, they are not considered for promotions or are given less interesting or challenging work.
Additionally, women often prioritise stability and so, they do not act strategically towards their own careers. They may even isolate themselves in order to maintain predictability to their days/ responsibilities. This limits the skills and experience they build and also their exposure to multiple stakeholders and influencers who can help shape their careers. How can we break this cycle?
TAQ recommends conducting a relationship audit. Make a list of people that you can tap into for support. It is a good start to seek counsel and support instead of giving up and dropping out of the workforce. Fighting or struggling alone can be exhausting, and might be detrimental for long-term professional growth. Having a strong support system with people who are guiding you and cheering you on, can drastically assuage the negative impact of workplace hurdles for women. Build your tribe concertedly.
- Career champions: Who will sing my praises?
- Sources of feedback: Who will give me honest feedback on my performance and challenge me to develop?
- Emotional support system: Who will give me a positive boost?
- Organizational sages: Who will help me understand the ins and outs of the organization?
- Mentors: Who will help me think through personal and professional decisions?
- Connectors: Who has a large and diverse network and is willing to introduce me to others?
- Power people: Who has the power to make things happen?
2. Be open and flexible to ride the phase
Feeling saturated or bored is often a reason women leave. They imagine options as binaries – staying in the existing role or quitting; but there are other possibilities, like trying a different organisation/ career change. Socialised to follow rules that only make women more risk averse, disruption can not only be rewarding, but it is often key to building skills and knowledge, and accelerating their growth. A change of jobs or moving to a different role/position in the same organisation can strengthen one’s adaptability skills, build resilience, and vitalise professional networks.
While changing roles, jobs, or careers is daunting, a shift with the right support system in place can help cast you out of a workplace slump; fostering ability to stay in the professional game for a longer period of time. The important thing is, to stay in the game while still being relevant.
3. Take the lead on discussing compensation and growth
A study argued that women get a raise 15% of the time in contrast to men getting a raise 20% of the time in their careers. This is a testament to how deep our socialisation runs. Women settle because they don’t believe they deserve it (imposter phenomenon) or are overpowered by their gratitude and loyalty to the organisation. Women prefer to believe their work will eventually be rewarded adequately instead of negotiating actively.
Compounding this reticence is the reaction one gets when one asks. A 2014 study found that there is no difference between men and women asking for better compensation. The only difference was that women ask but often do not get. Women would thus do better by learning to build their profiles from the beginning in a manner that they can make a list of their contributions and demand their promotion. In principle, have their work highlighted and noticed.
Here is one way to drive your conversation on promotions/ additional compensation to success.
- Get some benchmarks from your peers.
- Talk to your male counterparts to understand their negotiation tactics.
- Be persistent with your demands. Use your networks (senior leaders, managers, supervisors) to back these demands for you.
- Do not settle.
Since the advent of COVID-19, gender disparities at work have further aggravated. More than a quarter of Indian women are planning to leave the workforce indefinitely. However, if women in their mid-careers strategise skillfully, the chances of their longevity in, and satisfaction from, work will increase manifold.
About the Author:
Apeksha Jain is a student of women’s studies. She is extremely passionate about advocating for the psychosocial health of gender, sexual, and caste minorities. She is an avid reader, and likes to nurture her curiosity of the self and others by indulging herself in the performing arts.