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Microsoft woos India's stay-at-home moms to return to work, develop software for world

Unable to meet its gender diversity aspirations only from hip young campuses, Microsoft-IT India is turning to an unlikely talent pool to find more women employees - stay-at-home mothers.

In a first such initiative globally, the Indian offshore arm of Microsoft's IT engineering division is trying to persuade women techies who have taken a career break for personal reasons such as marriage or child birth to come back to work. On offer are reskilling and mentoring, flexible working hours, and an option to work from home or any other tailor-made solution that techie moms demand.

Wives and mothers thus wooed back by Microsoft IT-India could one day help develop some of Microsoft's popular software that power millions of PCs worldwide. These women will work at the Hyderabad-based centre, Microsoft's largest outside its Redmond HQ, which has helped develop popular Microsoft applications including SharePoint, .NET, SQL Server and Biz Talk. About 1,300 employees work there.

"If we need talent, we need to adjust and provide solutions to employees," says Rajiv Burman, HR director, Microsoft IT-India (MSIT).

MSIT rolled out the Springboard programme this week, realising that merely hiring more women at campuses is inadequate to get its gender balance right. Even though it is now hiring 40% more women from campuses than it did three years ago, many women would quit due to personal reasons three to four years later, just as they are ready to move into leadership roles.

Microsoft IT-India has decided to address the issue proactively. Not content with merely attracting, retaining and building a culture conducive to women, it has decided to lure women engineers back to work with second careers. Women Engineers a Rare Breed

Women engineers are a rare breed in India. The fairer sex accounts for less than 10% students at IITs. Tier-II schools are only slightly better; and getting volumes is not easy. Even this supply grows thin as women start building families. "India loses 18% of the white collar woman workforce year-on-year," says Saundarya Rajesh, founderpresident, AVTAR Career Creators & FLEXI Careers India.

"Initiatives in second careers constitute the Eureka moment for companies as far as women employees are concerned." "When we looked at women, we consistently found that the majority of reasons why women were leaving were family-related," says Burman. Adds Sairee Chahal, cofounder, Fleximoms, a diversity hiring and back-to-work specialist, "Our data says that almost 70% breaks are attributed to child-bearing and bringing up children - two crucial breaks are newborns and teen/board exams."

Now, MSIT has an option to win them back. "If you do not make your company attractive to women, you are losing 50% of your talent pool in India. Why lose out on talent that has constraints due to personal reasons?" says MSIT's Burman. "We are looking for women who have worked for at least four years and have a certain level of maturity. There is no age limit. We will call them interns and are looking at computer science and engineering backgrounds," he adds.

These women will be provided full-time coach, mentor, re-skilling and will work for 20 hours a week during the internship for six months. On successful completion of the programme, they will become full-time employees. The work hours will increase to 40 with flexible work options. The first batch will start working at MSIT in November.

"Such an initiative is promising," says Amiya Verma, an engineering graduate from the 1995 class of Delhi College of Engineering (now Delhi Technological University), who after nine years of various stints as a techie, quit to take care of her new-born son in 2004. Verma has over the years upgraded her skills, "but managing both home and work is daunting", she says. Verma's wish list includes training, project-based work or internships, and provisions such as leave for child care.

The company will identify these women in five ways - spouses of employees, women who have left Microsoft, online channels such as LinkedIn and Facebook, groups such as 'Women in IT' to evangelise, and an agency in Bangalore that does diversity hiring. The programme is initially being rolled out for MSIT.

"If this works, we can spread it to India, and even globally. It is designed for women in India because the country has unique issues - women leaving to take care of families - which may not happen in other geographies," says Burman. Other leaders in the diversity space such as IBM India too have second career initiatives. IBM's 'Bring Her Back' focuses on bringing women professionals, who have been out of work for up to three years, back to work.