With her wide-ranging publications that delve deep into the whys and hows of women coping with career breaks due to marriage and motherhood, Dr Saundarya’s writings create a stirring impact with its avant-garde quality. She has set a precedent with her disruptive thinking that challenges the set norms which are at times unfavorably stacked up against women in the corporate world. As a social entrepreneur, Dr Saundarya has been challenging the accepted and acceptable in Corporate Inc by being an advisor for several corporate organizations on Inclusion and Diversity and has tirelessly been striving for the last twenty years through Avtar, a talent strategy consulting company founded by her, which enables high-growth organizations to focus sharply on making the workplace more welcoming for women who have been on a career break.
Q. Dr Saundarya please take us through our journey, how Avtar was conceptualized?
Saundarya Rajesh: I was in a very well-paying job post my MBA. Then I got married, had a baby and it became unsustainable to carry forth a career. Re-entry was hard and I realized the corporate sector did not take too kindly to women who had been on a break, with absolutely no flexibility in terms of timing and policies around employing such women. Meanwhile I started teaching at a college which gave me time to research about the disconnect that existed between women looking for a second chance at career after a maternity break or relocation and the corporate world. It was found out that there is a talent pool of women who wanted to re-enter the corporate pool and there were organizations that were willing to recruit them. That is how Avtar was conceived, to act as a platform that could connect the large community of women who were dropping out, get hired. In the year 2000, Avtar’s mission was to find a job for women who had been on a break but with time I realized that finding a job was among the earlier things to solve.
Q. What were these other challenges that have been at play?
Saundarya Rajesh: Firstly, it is important for women to not perceive marriage and motherhood as a factor that derails their career. Secondly, the process of child-rearing has always been seenas the woman’s prerogative. Women are seen as the primary care-givers but men should share the responsibility equally.
Q. How can women be made to feel assured that marriage, motherhood or relocation would not jeopardize their career?
Saundarya Rajesh: There is a great need for role model organizations. We have always focused on individuals as role models to look upto. But there needs to be role model organizations which embrace diversity and are inclusive in their recruitment choices. Currently maternity is seen as a disruption , it should not be seen as a zero-sum game. The role model organizations with robust inclusive policies should be able to repose confidence in women who can have the assurance of being able to re-enter the job pool.
Q. What role should the organizations play to be able to tap into the pool of women who want to get back to work?
Saundarya Rajesh: An organization is a living, breathing, dynamic representation of a community of the world around it. It is a microcosm which should make its existence purposeful. An organization should be able to integrate its business goals with the kind of social impact it can have on society. It should have a deep sense of empathy to be able to tap into marginalized talent. To be able to see that there are women with long career breaks , people with disability who need to be included back into the workforce. And instinctively the organizations would realize that flexibility is oxygen for a woman’s career.
Q. Can providing flexibility in work hours and work policies improve productivity?
Saundarya Rajesh: Employees should be able to separate their personal and professional lives without work and life boundaries blurring. Jobs have taken over our lives. Women are perceived as the primary care-giver so the entire onus falls on her. Post the pandemic, more organizations are providing flexibility to women which is working in favour of women as caregiving is easier through work from home. Organizations by providing flexibility to women will be able to retain these multitasking women who will contribute well.
Q. How does Avtar catalyze organizations to be more accommodating to women who have been on a career break?
Saundarya Rajesh: We have been running an initiative called Working Mother & Avtar Best Companies for Women in India for the last five years and as we speak, applications are pouring in from organizations that employ a minimum of five hundred employees. The application form that we provide has nearly four hundred questions which serve almost as a training programme that makes the organizations introspect and develop themselves. And by providing evidence for doing good work for its women employees, organizations get recognition nationwide as some of the best organizations to work at. These are the vanguard organizations which go on to become role model organizations and pave the way for other organizations to get inspired.
Q. If you had to give a one line suggestion to the organizations so that they can become more inclusive, what would it be?
Saundarya Rajesh: Focus should be on outcome rather than output.