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Treading the Balance Rope- with Malathi Srinivasan


Malathi Srinivasan

Malathi Srinivasan, as Country Manager, IBM Academic Initiative

In 2012, Public Policy expert of the U.S Department of State, Anne-Marie Slaughter made waves with her article titled, “Why women still can’t have it all” which became the most read article of The Atlantic magazine ever. She exploded the conversation around women, work, family and work-life balance, shattering the myth that women are really on a level-playing field. She illustrated it with her own rocky journey with her teenager sons while holding a highly demanding job, despite having an extremely supportive husband. She bravely brought out a much-stigmatized and out-of bounds line of thinking on how women actually feel about letting the lion’s share of childcare go to someone else- even their own life partners .

Following that, Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg brought out her bestseller, “Lean In” and made the now-famous line “The most important career choice you will make is who you will marry”. She also implied in her book that women tend to cut back on their demands and refrain from asking what’s rightly theirs. They shy away and are more vulnerable to feeling judged- in both their roles as employees and mothers. There are hundreds of social experiments that substantiate that women often suffer from feelings of inadequacy and guilt, even after accomplishing equally or more challenging tasks than men have.

While this is a global trend, India’s position on women and work is even more complex and dynamic; leavened by several cultural nuances and decades of gender-conditioning. Throw in the challenges of the nuclear families and everyday parenting, and you have nothing less than a roller-coaster ride happening every day. According to this BBC Survey, the drop-out rate among women employees in India after child-birth is an appalling 66-82%!!!

Kidskintha reached out to a few women who have successfully stayed on top of the game and manoeuvred the challenges of a demanding job along with the challenge of raising and caring for a young family.

We did an exclusive interview with Malathi Srinivasan, an accomplished General Manager of Marketing at IBM technologies. She grew up in Hyderabad and lived in Mumbai. After getting the coveted MBA in marketing from MICA, Ahmedabad, Malathi went on to lead the ultra-challenging, prestigious and satisfying IBM Academic initiative as the Country Manager – an ambitious project to equip students of hundreds of engineering colleges with much-needed industry specific skills. Her work in this role took her across the length and breadth of the country; finally gaining an entry in the Limca Book of Records.

Malathi Srinivasan

Malathi Srinivasan, as Country Manager, IBM Academic Initiative

Read on to see her perspectives on work-life balance and how she balances her act…

KK: What, according to you was the most challenging part of your job while raising young kids? How did you manage it?

Malathi: Getting the balance between freedom and discipline for the children – both are equally important. The trouble is, we won’t know for 20 years if we have got that right!

On a more day-to-day basis, managing the summer is hard work. We think most summer camps bear an uncanny resemblance to torture camps, so prefer to spend time with the children doing things with them. It’s a challenge to manage that and work. We’re holding up for now, but would be exhausted at the end of the summer.

KK : If your work entails travel, what do you do to manage your home front, esp. kids?

Malathi: Very early on, we made the decision that we won’t leave the children in the care of a nanny without one of us being around. We also never had either set of parents with staying with us. Fortunately, my husband is pretty good with the kids. He spoils them and messes the house up, but he does the freedom bit well, and they’re happy with him. He also makes it evident that he’s happy to contribute at home. Skills are not really the only thing, attitude is, too!

On his work-front, it helps that his company ThoughtWorks is very progressive. They have excellent work-from-home options, even for senior guys like him. . They’re also cool with children coming to office on a fairly frequent basis- which is a blessing especially during the summer!

The genuine desire to have women succeed has to be ingrained as part of the work culture in the company.

KK: What practices and policies in your workplace, did you think helped you balance your work and time?

Malathi: Flexitime! When the children were really young, I needed to go to office only once a week. I also had bosses that cared more about results than time spent in the office.

It is also important that the company lends the ability to find a role that does not suffer from telecommuting. The genuine desire to have women succeed has to be ingrained as part of the work culture as well.

KK: What did you think was lacking that could have helped you balance work and home better?

Malathi: A playpen in the office could really solve a lot of logistical issues. We don’t need childcare during school days, but would appreciate the ability to leave them there on the occasions (especially during the summer break) when I have to bring them to the office.

I don’t have the perfect home, I do not serve perfect meals and I don’t spend my weekends scrubbing every inch of the house to make it shine.

KK: What is your best time-management hack? For work as well as for home?

Malathi: I don’t drive and don’t intend to either. I strongly feel driving is not only stressful but also wasted time on zero-purpose. I take cabs or public transport and use the commute time to finish calls, emails and general reading. Provides a lot of me-time.

Also, getting away from a perfectionist mindset helps. I don’t have the perfect home, I do not serve perfect meals and I don’t spend my weekends scrubbing every inch of the house to make it shine. Instead, we use that time to spend together playing games, reading or watching something interesting. I am happy with a moderately clean home and edible meals and don’t get worked up about it.

KK: If there are particular tools, products, practices, etc that you found immensely useful, please let us know.

My husband and I share a simple online document with our respective travel schedules. Whoever make an entry first gets to travel and the other stays at home with the children. It has so far allowed us to avoid schedule conflicts.

Working from home does not mean you log in to work in night clothes. If not in formals, atleast do not work in your night wear/gym wear. Dress well as it certainly reflects in how you approach work.

KK: What tips do you have for other aspiring women who would like to pursue challenging careers while raising kids?

Malathi:

  • Marry a supportive man and family.
  • If you can manage it, spend three good years at a company before going on maternity leave.
  • During peak child-rearing years, find a role that has fewer deadlines and one that requires less face-to-face time.
  • Make peace with the idea that having it all is a myth. Trade-offs are important. If you’re working four days a week telecommuting, you’re unlikely to wind up as a CEO of a major firm.

KK: Please elaborate on how to manage working from home. 

Malathi: I’ve done this for nearly 9 years now. My company introduced the work from home policy just around the time I got pregnant with our first child and it was something God-sent! While it sounds like a boon, there were a lot of adjustments that needed to be done.

Working from home is not easy, in fact, if anything, it is tougher.

The flexibility it affords is excellent, especially for working mothers. But you need to be more disciplined to get things done. With the many distractions (incessant door bells, family and friends that disturb, errands that pop up and of-course, the temptation to catch a quick nap 🙂 ) that occur at home, it helps to set some clear rules

  • Earmark a separate room to work from. If you cannot afford that luxury, atleast a quiet corner where you won’t be disturbed.
  • Invest in good furniture (comfortable chair and table) and the necessary paraphernalia (a sound internet connection, wi-fi, printer, headphones, telephone connection etc). This is often neglected, but can have a huge bearing on your work.
  • Have a clear conversation with family and set expectations. Just because you are working from home does not mean that you are available through the day. In the early days, visiting relatives would treat my working from home as some kind of a hobby and expect me to join them for shopping etc on a working day 🙂
  • Plan to visit your office at least once a week. Important to not lose the office going rhythm
  • Working from home does not mean you log in to work in night clothes. If not in formals, at least do not work in your night wear/gym wear. Dress well as it certainly reflects in how you approach work.
  • Have clear working hours and most importantly wrap up when you have to. The temptation to check email 24/7 has to be resisted.

It’s easy for any one of us to be ignored or be termed a nuisance. But when enough of us speak as one, any company will have to take notice. There is strength in unity.

KK: How do you think women can influence Policies at work. 

The first thing to realize is that the truth is on our side. Women at work have for so long been given the short shrift that asking for fair policies is nothing to feel queasy about. Three ideas that can really work:

  • By being indispensable. The best way is to be so skilled at your particular area of work that employers will bend over backwards to accommodate you.
  • By bargaining collectively. It’s easy for any one of us to be ignored or be termed a nuisance. But when enough of us speak as one, any company will have to take notice. There is strength in unity.
  • By having a critical mass of women among the senior leadership. This may sound like circular reasoning. But occasionally it does happen that a fairly large number of women ascend to top management positions. When a critical mass (say, a third) of decision makers are women, they’re in a much better position to represent women’s concerns.

We must bring up our boys to think that their contributing at home is normal and expected.

If you would like to see something change to help women manage their work-life balance better, what would that be?

  • Society (including men, families, employers) must recognize that many women need to work outside of home for creative and financial reasons.
  • Guilt-tripping has to be avoided(“what kind of a mother are you?”)
  • Men must contribute in their own way (if they can’t cook, take the children to cricket practice).
  • We must bring up our boys to think that their contributing at home is normal and expected.  This is a multi-generational problem.

Also, please let us know what you liked most about Kidskintha.

It’s an interesting site as it is not a one way medium, the contributions and the varied perspectives from your readers makes it very engaging.

Malathi currently lives in Bangalore with her husband and 2 kids aged 6 and 9. She hopes to someday make a career out of Gardening, her true passion.

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