New Study Finds that Educated Indian Women Return from Career Interruptions with Surprising Ease—But Find It Difficult to Regain Career Momentum

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Why do highly qualified Indian women professionals drop out of the workforce and what challenges and opportunities do they face when they try to return? A new study from the Center for Talent Innovation finds the answer.

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A new study from the Center for Talent Innovation finds that Indian women on-ramp after taking a career break with much greater ease than their counterparts in the U.S., Germany and Japan, but Indian women find it more difficult to regain their career momentum (up-ramp). Building on the Center’s widely covered global work on “Off-Ramps and On-Ramps,” this study adds new fire to the ongoing debate about why highly qualified female talent take career breaks and the challenges they encounter when they try to accelerate their professional ambitions. The findings from the study entitled “On-Ramps and Up-Ramps India” were announced today at a launch event at Cisco India in Bangalore.

Although the number of Indian women who “off-ramp” (36 percent) is on par with their counterparts in the U.S. and Germany, the average length of off-ramps in India (11 months) is much shorter than in the United States (2.7 years) and Germany (1.9 years). The most surprising figure, however, is not that an overwhelming 91 percent of Indian women professionals want to return to work but 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) and Germany (68 and 34 percent).

The story is markedly different in India due to the country’s rising economic dynamo that women help power. India’s rapid economic growth, despite easing off recently, has fueled an ongoing war for talent. Because the Indian market is growing so fast and is still relatively new, the pipeline of experienced talent is simply not large enough, opening opportunities for on-ramping women. The troubling news for employers is that 72 percent of women who want to on-ramp do not want to return to the company they left. In addition, women who have off-ramped have difficulty up-ramping: Many feel stalled at work once they have returned and find it harder to regain their career momentum.

On-Ramps and Up-Ramps India addresses these issues with solutions by including case studies of programs and practices that thirteen companies and organizations have already instituted to enable highly qualified Indian women to flourish in their careers. In particular, these successful initiatives focus on encouraging and sustaining ambition, enabling work-life balance, and providing paths for on-ramping and up-ramping.

Forward-thinking CEOs are aware of the untapped possibilities offered by off-ramped Indian women professionals, and the necessity of retaining this rich talent pool. Sunil Nayak, CEO of Sodexo India, says, “Successful women are redefining the classical definition of talent. Taking a break from work is not a loss of experience but a career plus: many women who take breaks come back with stronger views and different perspectives.”

As India’s economic growth engines diversify from 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. Nayak acknowledges, “There’s a lot of work to be done, but there are so many opportunities for companies and women.”

Key Findings:

  •     Family-rooted pulls are huge forces behind Indian women’s exodus from the workforce: 75 percent of Indian women off-ramp for childcare (compared to 74 percent in the United States and 82 percent in Germany) and 80 percent for eldercare (compared to 30 percent in the United States and 18 percent in Germany).
  •     Unfriendly work environments also play a significant role: 72 percent of Indian women professionals leave because their careers are not satisfying or enjoyable; 66 percent leave because they feel their career progression is stalled.
  •     The good news: An overwhelming 91 percent of Indian women want to return to work, similar to the United States (89 percent) but significantly more than Germany (78 percent).
  •     Surprisingly, on-ramping Indian women are able to rejoin the full-time, mainstream workforce in much higher proportions (58 percent) than in the United States (40 percent) or Germany (34 percent). They also face smaller salary penalties than their counterparts in the United States: 7 percent versus 16 percent.
  •     Indian women professionals say that company policies that support work-life balance would prevent them from leaving: reduced hours (62 percent), flex time (59 percent) and telecommuting (55 percent).
  •     However, flexible work arrangements can be a career killer for Indian women: 54 percent of women fear that taking flex options will doom their promotional prospects. Sixty-two percent of women who took a scenic route, that is, who chose part-time or flexi-work, feel stalled, versus 48 percent of those who followed a conventional career path.
  •     Other factors that inhibit women from progressing in their careers: work- life imbalance; mobility and safety issues (54 percent feel unsafe during their daily commute); and stereotypes of success (73 percent of women at multinational companies and 55 percent at Indian companies say they need to compromise their authenticity to conform to their company’s standards of executive presence).

Speakers at the launch event:

  •     Giridhar G.V., Chief Operating Officer, Ernst & Young Global Shared Services India
  •     Sylvia Ann Hewlett, President, Center for Talent Innovation
  •     Mitu Jayashankar, Contributing Editor, Forbes India (moderator)
  •     Vaishali Kasture, Managing Director and Head of Investment Management Operations, Goldman Sachs
  •     Pankaj Kulshreshta, Senior Vice President, Analytics, Genpact
  •     Shweta Mehrotra, Head of HR, Operations & Technology and Global Functions, Citi South Asia
  •     Sunil Nayak, Chief Executive Officer, Sodexo India
  •     Subash Rao, Senior Director, Human Resources, Cisco Systems
  •     Karen Sumberg, Executive Vice President, Center for Talent Innovation

The research consists of focus groups, Insights in-Depth® sessions (a proprietary web-based tool used to conduct highly facilitated online focus groups), one-on-one interviews and a survey of 3,000 Indian residents with the equivalent of a U.S. bachelor’s degree. Numerical figures in the report refer to the subset of 1,824 Indian residents between ages 28-55 unless otherwise specified (October-November 2012). Survey was conducted by Knowledge Networks under the auspices of the Center for Talent Innovation.

Research Sponsors:
Citi, Genpact, Sodexo, Standard Chartered Bank, Unilever

About the Authors:

Sylvia Ann Hewlett is an economist and the founding President and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation where she chairs the Task Force for Talent Innovation. She also directs the Gender and Policy Program at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University. Dr. Hewlett is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the World Economic Forum Council on Women’s Empowerment. She is the author of 10 Harvard Business Review articles, 11 critically acclaimed nonfiction books including Off-Ramps and On-Ramps; Winning the War for Talent in Emerging Markets and Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor (Harvard Business Review Press, forthcoming Sept. 2013), and is ranked #11 on the “Thinkers 50” listing of the world’s top business thinkers. Her writings have appeared in the New York Times and Financial Times, and she’s a featured blogger on She is a frequent guest on television, appearing on Oprah, Newshour with Jim Lehrer, Charlie Rose, the Today Show, and CNN Headline News. Dr. Hewlett has taught at Cambridge, Columbia, and Princeton universities. A Kennedy Scholar and graduate of Cambridge University, she earned her PhD in economics at London University.

Laura Sherbin, Executive Vice President and Director of Research, heads up CTI’s survey research and plays a key role in CTI’s advisory arm, Hewlett Chivée Partners. She is an economist specializing in workforce issues and international development. She is also an Adjunct Professor at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. She has led CTI research projects including “Off-Ramps and On-Ramps” in Japan and Germany and is coauthor of several Harvard Business Review articles and reports, including The Athena Factor and The Sponsor Effect. She is a graduate of the University of Delaware and earned her PhD in economics from American University.

Tara Gonsalves, Research Associate at the Center for Talent Innovation, assists in conceptualizing surveys and analyzing quantitative data for research projects. She led the statistical analysis for CTI’s ORUR India project and is currently analyzing data for CTI’s “Innovation, Diversity, and the Bottom Line.” She graduated from Brown University with an honors BA in Development Studies and Economics and earned an MA in International Education Policy from Harvard University. Prior to joining CTI, she worked as a researcher in India and held a Fulbright Fellowship in Indonesia. More recently she has worked at the Kennedy School of Government and the Institute for Education and Social Policy in New York.

Catherine Fredman, Vice President and Senior Fellow at the Center for Talent Innovation, helps lead the publication division. She has collaborated on Winning the War for Talent in Emerging Markets: Why Women Are the Solution (Harvard Business Press, 2011) and Top Talent: Keeping Performance Up When Business Is Down, as well as contributing to CTI research reports, articles and blogs. She has coauthored five best-selling business books, including Direct from Dell with Michael Dell, and Use the News with Maria Bartiromo, and has written memoirs with Andy Grove (Swimming Across) and for the Dell family. She is an award-winning magazine editor for consumer and corporate publications. Fredman is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College.

The Center for Talent Innovation

The Center for Talent Innovation (formerly the Center for Work-Life Policy), a non-profit “think tank” based in New York City, has emerged as a thought leader in diversity and talent management, driving ground-breaking research and seeding programs and practices that attract, retain and accelerate the new streams of talent around the world.

The Center for Talent Innovation’s flagship project is the Task Force for Talent Innovation (formerly the Hidden Brain Drain Task Force)—a private-sector task force focused on helping organizations leverage their talent across the divides of gender, generation, geography and culture. The 75 global corporations and organizations that constitute the Task Force—representing 4 million employees and operating in 190 countries around the world—are united by an understanding that the full utilization of the talent pool is at the heart of competitive advantage and economic success.

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