Women take on many roles in life. In a largely conservative region like Asia, women are often deemed responsible for child-bearing and nurturing, caring for elderly loved ones, as well as accountable for their own progress in pursuing further education and attempting entrepreneurial ventures, all of which may require them to put their careers on hold. Not surprisingly, results of a survey by Robert Walters show that up to 65% of Asian women have gone on a career break at some point in their lives.
While many of them wish to return to the workforce after career breaks, not many hiring managers view their return as enthusiastic as they had hoped for. Robert Walters’ findings indicate that in 2016, 46% of hiring managers in Asia did not employ any women who want re-join the workforce. In fact, in their return, conditions may be tougher for women who had career breaks than not. About 48% of returning women faced salary discrimination, and 38% lacked progression opportunities upon return.
Perception a main stumbling block
Between 20% and 24% of employers were uncertain if hiring returning women will be beneficial, even if they did, there is maybe little benefit. A study by PricewaterhouseCoopers in 2016 suggested this can be attributed to the perception that women who have left the workforce will be less up-to-date with industry trends and knowledge, not to mention deteriorated skills. Such attributes will therefore inhibit returning women’s progress and limit their contributions.
Women who have taken career breaks for any reasons are, unfortunately, perceived as lacking commitment. Organisations ideally want committed employees who put their jobs first. In traditional, patriarchal Asia, there is a strong perception that whenever conditions arise that require the attention of a family member, it will be women who come to the fore. Therefore, their commitment to work is hampered.
Up to 35% of Robert Walters’ respondents say they decided to return due to financial reasons. This puts to question the motivation of returning women; women returning to work are often perceived as just trying to make ends meet financially, and are therefore less reliable.
Truth is, there is little concern about motivation or benefits women bring to the workforce. Based on Robert Walters’ findings, 28% of women who want to return wish to learn new skills and 18% look for new fulfilment in life instead of staying home, a combined more than the 35% who just look for financial aid.
On top of this, 55% hiring managers said that women with specific job experience / skill are the biggest benefits to the workplace, accentuated in areas such as human resources, IT and finance. Employers say that women who return are beneficial to the workplace because they are hungry for a challenge (51% of respondents), have the ability to multi-task (46%) and have higher engagement levels (42%) compared to their male counterparts.
On a bigger picture, tapping onto women workforce addresses the talent shortages faced across industries. Up to 88% of Southeast Asia’s organisations face talent shortages. With Asian women on average 70% less likely to be in the workforce, this represents an untapped wealth of talent.
Surveys aside, it has been proven that women can take on exceptional and new challenges. In the Second World War, women filled many jobs traditionally held by men, driving industrial production of the U.S. and kept supplies sustained. They even joined the military to provide support, which was key to allowing the mobilization of more combatants into the battlefield.
It is noteworthy that 92% of employers say they do not have a hiring policy that targets women returning to the workforce. In addition, the discrimination they face upon returning does not help at all. Gender bias should not be allowed to perpetuate and hamper the contribution of women who want to return to the workforce as well as depriving organisations of their skills. Women can be immensely beneficial to the workforce, but without a good screening and interviewing process, organisations will never find those with potential. This is where HR professionals play an important role to ensure that these gems are uncovered.