When Seema* became pregnant, she hoped to take six months off after giving birth. But the multinational financial services firm where she worked followed India’s official policy and only permitted three months of maternity leave. Seema considered quitting her job and rejoining the firm after six months but couldn’t risk losing her career momentum. “I earn more than my husband and his income alone would not be enough to sustain our family. And I was on a galloping horse in my career. Did I want to bring it to a halt?”

Career interruptions are a fact of life for most women professionals around the world. The reasons are similar: Either forces rooted in the home, such as childcare or eldercare, pull women off their career track or workplace issues, such as lack of career progression, thwart their aspirations and push them to leave. However, new research from the Center for Talent Innovation, a New York-based think tank, reveals surprising news: India’s women professionals are realizing their career ambitions remarkably well. In fact, in some critical ways, they are far ahead of their counterparts in the United States, Germany, and Japan.

A little over one-third (36 percent) of the 775 college-educated Indian women surveyed off-ramped, that is, voluntarily took a break. This is on par with the U.S., Japan, and Germany. But the amount of time they spent out of the workforce was less than a year (11.4 months), compared to 1.9 years in Germany, 2.4 years in Japan, and 2.7 years in the U.S. (See Chart 1)

Educated Indian women are among the most highly motivated and ambitious in the world. A survey of female talent in emerging markets by the Center for Talent Innovation found that 82 percent of Indian respondents report that they love their job, 93 percent are highly engaged (“willing to go the extra mile at work”), and a whopping 88 percent aspire to hold a top job. No matter what their age, Indian women show levels of ambition double that of their U.S. counterparts, so it’s not surprising that an overwhelming 91 percent want to return to work.

What is startling is that so many succeed in on-ramping: 88 percent are able to find a job and 58 percent find full-time, mainstream positions, dwarfing their counterparts in the U.S. (73 and 40 percent, respectively), Germany (68 and 34 percent), and Japan (43 and 30 percent). (See Chart 2)


The reason: India’s dynamic economy continues to fuel an ongoing war for talent. “The biggest limitation to growth is not market opportunities but finding the talent to maximize these opportunities,” says Sunil Nayak, CEO of Sodexo India.

However, many of the survey respondents reported challenges in finding the right job that enables them to balance career ambitions and family obligations.

Traditional roles still exert a powerful pull. “My sister recently quit her job,” Parvati says. “She was a financial analyst with an MBA, career-oriented, and really ambitious. She could have gone up the ladder but her in-laws made her feel that she was neglecting her three-year-old son. It’s expected that the mother take care of the child, plus the home, plus serving her in-laws and parents, and if you have guests, them as well. If you don’t do it, they’ll excuse you for maybe one or two years by saying, ‘She has a busy job.’ But then they’ll start telling you that your child is growing, he needs to learn correct cultural values. Over time, it just gets too overwhelming. You need a break.”

Flexible work arrangements or scenic routes—stepping back without stepping out—aren’t much help. Although many companies offer flex-work, more than half (54 percent) of women professionals believe they will be penalized if they choose that option. One department head reports that people who take flex are referred to by their colleagues as “the having fun group.”

Women who took a scenic route are significantly more likely (62 percent versus 48 percent) to feel stalled at work than their peers who followed a more conventional career path. Meanwhile, returnees to full-time schedules feel stigmatized for having taken a leave. Suspicious that off-rampers might take time off again, coworkers are often resentful when they return and managers marginalize them in dead-end project work.

That’s what Anjali encountered when she attempted to on-ramp. Anjali had been a top producer in a bank’s private client service department when her daughter was born, so she assumed that resuming her job after a two-year break would be simple. To her astonishment, she recalls, she was told she could come back but at a role three levels down from her previous position. “Another manager said, ‘You’d be reporting to someone younger and we don’t know whether they’d be comfortable with the situation.’ It was such a slap in the face that I just said, ‘The hell with you guys!’”

Overall, dissatisfaction with their rate of career progression—the result, among other reasons, of such engrained misogyny that 45 percent of both women and men surveyed agree that women routinely experience bias due to their gender—drives almost as many women out of the workforce as childcare: 75 percent of respondents off-ramp due to childcare obligations versus 72 percent who leave because their career isn’t satisfying and 66 percent who drop out because they feel that their career has stalled.

When Indian women succeed in surmounting these hurdles and return to mainstream positions, they suffer astonishingly few penalties for their time out. Unlike their counterparts in Germany, Japan, and the U.S., where the adverse effects of off-ramping are routine, only 7 percent of Indian on-rampers find their salary cut, 6 percent have their management responsibilities diminished, 4 percent are given lower job titles, and 5 percent see their overall job purview curtailed. Indian women who returned from off-ramping earned 7 percent less on average than those who stayed the course; in the U.S., on the other hand, returnees earn 16 percent less. (See Chart 3)

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However, CTI research uncovered a troubling trend for employers: Anjali’s sentiments are common enough that 72 percent of women who want to on-ramp do not want to return to their previous employer.

This is a significant cause for worry in view of India’s overall talent shortage. As India’s economic growth engines diversify from low-wage back-office administrative and technical operations to independent functions that add real value, talented women are more and more critical to a company’s ongoing success. A recent study by Booz & Company estimates that if Indian women could achieve employment rates equal to men, the country’s GDP would increase by 27 percent.

Forward-thinking CEOs are aware of the rich potential offered by off-ramped women. “Many women who take breaks come back with stronger views and different perspectives,” says Nayak. Taking a break from work should be seen, he says, “not a loss of experience but a career plus.”

*Name has been changed to protect privacy