A few days ago, I opened a letter that bore the insignia of the Government of India. It said that I had been chosen as one of the 100 Women Achievers of India and was scheduled to meet the President of India for a lunch on the 22nd January 2016.
Flash back to the Malayalam movie How Old Are You? (or its Tamil version – 36 Vayadhinile). It tells the story of a woman who works in a dead-end job and then does something amazing which gets her a lunch with the President.
Spoiler alert! My story is anything but that. About 25 years ago with a newborn, an increasingly demanding job at a leading multinational bank and a husband with his own fast-paced work schedule, I realised I was burning both ends against the middle. After great deliberation, I went to my manager and proposed a flexible working arrangement that would ensure I finished my job while also managing my home-care and child-care duties. My manager reacted as if this was as rabid an idea as someone suggesting that Free Basics is actually free internet. Soon after, with not much deliberation, I took the decision of quitting my job.
Within just a few weeks, I realised I wanted my career back. Not that same job in that same bank, but my career. And that means my economic freedom, time with people other than my kids or mother-in-law, the adrenalin surge that came with completing a project, the acclaim and appreciation from peers — the whole package. I wanted my identity back. I wondered if it was a fundamental human right to desire to be intellectually and economically liberated and if so, was there some organisation, some impassioned evangelist who would fight for that right for me?
No company, I repeat, no company was ready to employ a woman with my credentials on a flexi-time basis. It was either full-time or bugger-off! And on full-time, it was equal opportunity, the way the fox offered the crane equal opportunity to drink soup in a bowl. I decided to take the more scenic route and embarked upon a circuitous journey into HR consulting, Teaching, Radio production, Face-painting (yes I did that!) that finally led to my own entrepreneurial adventure — AVTAR. I realise today that I was the change I was waiting for.
Those four were life-altering. And also defining; as a mother I realised what worked for one woman did not necessarily work for all women. And that set me on the path to the consulting work that I do today. As a Ph?D in women’s workforce participation, my interviews with thousands of women on how they wrestled with work-life balance shows just one thing — there is no silver bullet.
Even today, about two decades from when I first walked into my manager’s office, as I sit on the other side of the table as the founder and president of the AVTAR group, I know just how tough it is to ride these double horses. Today, as my colleagues walk through my door and share with me their joys and struggles about parenting, relationships, elder care or a business challenge they face, I realise how difficult it is for both men and women to just shut out the rest of their lives in pursuit of their careers. And they shouldn’t. As someone who has written paper after white paper on enablers for women and advised over 100 companies on how they can leverage the power of gender diversity at the workplace, I should be able to rattle off a list of things you should do to enjoy that elusive work and life Utopia. But I won’t. Instead, I shall share with you some deeply personal thoughts on how I think women (and men) should approach the work-life case.
People take the brunt out of work: Through years of working with people, I now realise how important they are in my life. Have a good rapport with your colleagues and peers at work — it not only helps professionally but creates friends at workplace. Many women who have quit working did so because they did not have allies in the workplace or at home.
- Office productivity ideas work well at home too. Do not think management is only for office. It is equally important to be efficient at home — with things as well as time. You would have heard of the secretary managing the calendar of the boss. The same idea can be used at home. My husband’s calendar and mine are synchronised and we both can see each other’s appointments/commitments/travel plans. Within a few months of implementing it, I realised how this simple tip can prevent such a lot of confusion and heartburn. Now, three years into using it, I swear by it and cannot imagine how life was before Rajesh and I could see each other’s days. Reminders are another awesome office idea that would help you equally well at home.
- Fads are good. That new diet which you wanted to try? Go ahead and do it. That Yoga class which everyone raves about? Sign up for it. Sometimes new fads can turn out to be a super routine that becomes a part of your life. But you would never know that until you tried it. You will be amazed at how you can make time for it and still feel ‘balanced.’
- Breaks need not be defined as ‘Long Vacations.’ There’s a friend of mine who always thought that she could unwind only if she went away for a few days to a vacation far away from home. She broke free from that trap, that a break need not have to be a long-winded journey that requires a downtime to recover from — and discovered to her delight that she could unwind just as happily at home. When you have small kids, planning a vacation can be a nightmare. Instead, tune your mind to take short, stay-at-home breaks. A break is anything that helps you unwind and bounce back with new vigour and zest. Find what rejuvenates you and indulge a little — it sure helps in getting a good perspective on your life.
In August, 2015, the nominations opened for the #100 Women Achievers award. When the results were announced on December 31st, I was overwhelmed by huge numbers of people who voted for me. But my greatest joy is that I was nominated not by the thousands of women who we have helped return to the workplace but my own colleagues — a dozen of them — who are the direct beneficiaries of the “Integration” thinking that I described above. Like charity, work-life integration too begins at home. You can watch the video of our nomination here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vRnqsv293pw
In the book The Seeds of Greatness Denis Waitley says these immortal lines : “It is not in the pursuit of happiness that we find fulfilment, it is in the happiness of pursuit.” The 100 Women Achiever’s award has proved to me that happiness lies in the pursuit of a 50–50 gender balance in all the workplaces of India!
(The writer is Founder-President of AVTAR Career Creators & FLEXI Careers India.)