Companies like IBM, L'Oreal and Maybelline giving women a 2nd shot at careers

NEW DELHI: Like most mothers-to-be, Ritu Mital applied for maternity leave last year expecting to return after the stipulated three months. As key accounts manager for L'Oreal 'selective' division - premium brands Maybelline and L'Oreal - she was in charge of the modern retail and chain stores business. After complications in her pregnancy, Mital realised she'd be away much longer.

Later, happy to be home with her newborn she was anxious if she could resume work on similar terms. She needn't have worried. L'Oreal didn't want to lose a valuable resource, and agreed. Now in a bigger role as manager sales planning, Mital gets to work flexible hours - coming in late, leaving early, and working from home when she needs to. "It gives a lot of mental peace, knowing that somebody was there to understand my problem," says Mital.

L'Oreal doesn't yet have a policy for this, and decides on a caseto-case basis. A dozen women have benefited so far, says HR director Mohit James. "We're sensitive to individual needs. We make sure the gap does not affect their careers," says James. These may be the perks of working in the headquarters of an MNC where nearly 50% of employees are women, close to the 60% in its global operations.

The idea isn't exactly new, but more businesses now sense an opportunity. They see an alternate talent pool waiting to be tapped. And they're creating programmes and policies to facilitate women professionals returning to the working pool, after they've dropped out to become mothers or for other domestic reasons.

"With increased participation of women in the workforce, companies, especially existing employers, look at bringing them back instead of losing them to the market," says E Balaji, managing director, Ma Foi Randstad, a staffing services firm. According to a global survey by workplace solutions provider Regus released early this year, Indian firms are far more likely to hire returning mothers in 2011 - 56% companies compared with 36% globally.

Tata's Second Career Internship Programme launched in 2008 is open to those who've worked four continuous years before taking a break of 1-8 years. Once selected, they undergo a residential induction programme, and assigned live projects spanning 500 hours over six months, on a flexible working basis. A stipend of Rs 3-4 lakh, and a chance to be absorbed into one of the group's companies, makes it a potential career revival option. IBM India is piloting a programme titled 'Bring Her Back', in its Global Delivery Business unit.

"We want to identify the most effective channels and methods to bring back qualified women professionals who've taken career breaks," says Kalpana Veeraraghavan, workforce diversity manager at IBM India. For those who wish to resume on a part-time basis, it has a separate programme called Liquid Plus. IBM depends mainly on employee referrals and taps high-performing alumni who left 3-5 years ago. Training on technical and soft skills upgradation , and mentoring is done on the job.

The IT industry is prolific in targeting such professionals, thanks to a shortage of 'employable' software developers and engineers. But companies in other sectors - consulting and professional services firms, telecom and FMCG - too see value. It's an experienced talent pool that needs minimum training inputs and orientation. "Culture acclimatisation takes a lot of time and resources of a company.

These people can pick up quickly from where they left," says Purvi Sheth of Shilputsi, an HR consulting firm. At Intellecap, a consulting and investment banking services firm in the social enterprise space, 50% of the 60-odd employees and three of its six co-founders are women. Bringing them back has more to do with the nature of its work and people the firm gets, explains CEO K Sree Kumar.

"Our challenge is greater than mainstream entities because we attract an unusual class of people - very bright and educated with tier-I education, probably worked in an MNC, and taking a pay cut because they want to do some social good. That kind of person requires being taken care of," he says. Admittedly, it's difficult to settle back at work after a long absence. Little contact with colleagues and networks means they miss out on work conversations and information. The relevance of their skills too comes under question as technology and work processes change.

Regular recruitment channels aren't helpful either. "The corporate system is not attuned to see you in any other format. They're not ready to take this alternate talent pool," says Sairee Chahal, co-founder Fleximoms, a career support and advisory firm aimed at precisely this pool of talent. Fleximoms helped Gurgaonbased Rajashree Mitra, find a return path to work. After graduating from IIT Kharagpur, she worked as a management consultant with PwC for five years, before leaving in 2001 to be a fulltime mother.