Work life integration and career pathing of mid-career women Essay

Work Life integration and career pathing of mid-career women and its relevance to sustainable HRM in India


For a long time corporate India has been struggling with recruiting and retaining talent. One of the major areas of concern has been ensuring greater numbers of women not only remain in the workforce but make it to the higher echelons of organisations. Sustainable HRM which is more commonly defined in business literature through the concept of the ‘Triple bottom line’ (TBL) where companies focus beyond profits and also take account of social and environmental issues has gained tremendous importance over the years. The aim of this paper is to advance discussion on the importance of understanding women’s career related problems at the critical mid-career phase with the aim of ensuring they remain in the workforce. Consequently with more women at the higher levels of organisations extant literature already proves TBL gets positively impacted in most organisations. The paper also aims to develop a theoretical framework within the Indian context between these key concepts and sustainable HRM.

Key words: Work Life Integration, Career Pathing, Mid-Career women, Indian Industry, Sustainable HRM.


Sustainable development and sustainability are two terms that have become increasingly important globally and more so in the business world over the last two decades. Companies are feeling the need to create and establish better business models with sustainability at the core. One of the key functions in this process is Human Resources Management.

Historically there have been three main ‘Influencers’ to the development and understanding of sustainability theory and consequently practice, namely, the United Nation’s World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED, 1987), also known as “The Brundtland Commission’, environmentalists and business strategists.

In 1997 Elkinkton proposed the term “Triple Bottom Line” (TBL) which is essential to the understanding of sustainability in the business context (Savitz and Weber, 2006) thus TBL says that a company’s success should not only be measured by the conventional financial bottom line but should comprise of ‘Profit, Planet and People’ that is be profitable without ignoring

Environmental and social/ethical performance.

For a long time human resource management (HRM) has been facing a double challenge of not only attracting highly skilled employees but also managing, retaining and motivating the diverse resources they already possess which include older employees, employees from varied cultural and social backgrounds, women, single parents, the physically challenged and to further add to this melting pot these resources will be at different career and life stages (Darcy, McCarthy, Hill, and Grady. 2012). Furthermore as extant literature spells out, for any organisation its human resources can act as a potential source of sustained competitive advantage (Barney, 1991; Grant, 1991; Moroko and Uncles, 2008), therefore it is imperative that understanding these various groups and their potential contribution is essential to ensure this competitive advantage and also promote a better level of sustainability.

This paper seeks to understand one such group of resources mainly women in the mid-career and mid-life stages and how understanding their Work Life balance and career pathing issues would help in retaining such women and ultimately how this would effect sustainability in Indian organisations.

Literature review

Sustainable HRM

De Prins’ model of Sustainable HRM

De Prins (2011) says that Sustainable HRM concentrates on “optimally utilizing and respecting human workforces within the organization”, where a clear long-term relationship is built between an organization’s policies and its environment. She make a distinction between four approaches to the concept viz, the sociological approach, the psychological approach, strategic HRM approach and fourthly the concept of ‘Green HRM’.

The sociological approach looks at the relationship between the interests of the employer, the employee and society, thus within HRM its scope translates into such issues as, promoting diversity in the workforce, health and engagement policies and family friendly strategies.

The psychological approach concentrates on what individuals within the organisation find important. According to Graton (as mentioned in De Prins, 2011) “People are completely different from financial of technological capital because they function in time, look for purpose and have a soul”. Since these resources are considered to be a crucial part of an organisations competitive advantage, it makes sense that organisations typically try harder to understand their human resources and their problems. This third approach looks at the relationship between Strategic and Sustainable HRM and how issues such as intake, employee turnover, training and appraisal impact organizational goal achievement.

The fourth approach is termed as “green HRM”; or the ‘planet’ component of the triple bottom line. This means looking at what aspects of HRM would help achieve the ‘green initiatives such as green behaviour as a competence, training in sustainability awareness, stimulating environmentally conscious behaviours and green employer branding.

The concepts of Mid-career and Women in mid-life.


‘Mid-career’ can be defined as a “transition period of intra-career role adjustment” (Schneer and Reitman, 1995). It is also referred to as mid-life or middle adulthood, and is defined as the age between 35 and 45 years (O’Neil and Bilimoria, 2005) over 40 (Wortley and Amatea, 1982) or 40 to 55 (Wahrendorf, Blane, Bartley, Dragano and Siegrist, 2013).

Women in mid life

Amos-Wilson, (1996) state that at the age of 40 a significant transition takes place, which emphases attention on the re-evaluation of attainment. Hall, (1986) further adds that at this mid-career stage there is a contemplative assessment of personal interests and values and for many, a reconsideration of individual needs and hopes (Emslie and Hunt, 2008).

For women, Marcinkus et al., (2007) state, that balancing work and family is a critical issue which also comes at a time when there may be discordant strains on the career front, childcare and other individual level issues. Auster, (2001) further puts forth that many women face trying compromises with respect to performance related organisational expectations and the needs of their children as they move higher up their career ladders.

According to Knight (1994) many women who cope with both career pressures and child care responsibilities reach a stage where they feel a compulsion to understand what gives actual meaning to their lives, in fact for some it means reassessing their basic identity, purpose and values. Knight, (1994) and Campbell Clark, (2002) further state that for some women research shows that there can be a greater feeling of fulfilment and accomplishment derived from the satisfaction of having effectively managed these two important aspects of their lives.

Mid-career women, organisational concerns and sustainability.

According to Auster, (2001), flexibility or flexible working becomes a key organisational-level factor that affects the level of career satisfaction for women at mid-career, Furthering this Marcinkus et al., (2007) report that job satisfaction, organisational commitment and career accomplishment is positively linked to organisational support. Sustainability literature further tells us that under the psychological approach if employees are the core of a sustainable competitive advantage, then “the knowledge and fostering of what drives and characterizes them is of utmost importance” De Prins (2011). Some of the critical themes identified by De Prins (2011) in this approach are issues such as work-life balance, self-sufficiency or autonomy at work, opportunities for self-development, employability concerns and open dialogue systems or communication channels.

Under the banner of work life balance many companies offer flexitime and home working provisions and although this can lead to higher autonomy and flexibility, research also indicates that it may lead employees to spend more time working, at times including evenings and weekends thereby defeating the purpose. This typically causes the borders between work and home to become indistinct which can become highly stressful for employees especially if children also have to be taken care of.

In some other studies, for example it has been reported that in reality there are not very many employees who actually take advantage of these policies (O'Connell and Russell, 2005) and that even when organisations inculcated policies for flexi-working, employees seemed to feel a stigma in availing of them and that in some cases the general perception among managers regarding women who opted for these policies was that they lacked commitment and were not serious about their careers. (Hochschild, 1997; Auster, 2001; Drew and Murtagh, 2005).

On another track, researchers such as O’Connor, (2001) put forth that though there may be certain women who aspire for top management jobs, and in such cases they should be encouraged and given the opportunities to advance however the researchers further state that there are some women who have different needs and do not wish to take on higher responsibilities. Chusmir, (1982) similarly reports that many women have lowered expectations regarding promotions because they are aware of their childcare and other family responsibilities.

Lewis and Humbert, (2010) report that in spite of a commitment to flexibility and “work-life balance” by organisations, the gendered idea of the ideal worker and ideas of competence combined with a dominating influence of masculinity and the “good mother‟ ideology, works to undermine both gender equity and workplace effectiveness, they also highlight the gap between the discussion of supporting women and the reality of cultural and structural barriers. Schein, (2007) also reports that male attitudes and perceptions that men are more suitable for management roles also act as a hindrance for women striving for higher positions.

The conclusion of these studies is that profound and extensive changes are required in policies, practices and mindsets at all levels. And organisations need to develop and offer options such that women should never have to feel that it boils down to a choice between family and career.

The Melting Pot Analogy and its significance to Sustainable HRM

Mid-life/Mid-career is a melting pot of influences; one major ingredient is Work life Balance/Integration and its sub factors. It remains to be seen what would be the outcome related to career pathing when all these influences and factors mix i.e. not all women will have similar pathing choices, it would predominantly depend on the mix of ‘ingredients’ that ‘went in’. Each work-life factor would effect a woman in a different way and consequently her career path and choices could be affected.

The Mid Career Melting Pot and Sustainability

Fig. 1 Source: Author

If organisations can identify typical ‘mixes’ of influences it would be easier to develop female friendly policies/practices to help retain female talent and ensure more women cross this critical mid-career phase and reach top management positions. It would also help in understanding what women want from their careers and what roles organisations can play so that these goals can be achieved and integrated.

One of the most prominent goals of Sustainable HRM is to promote diversity in the workforce, in India many organisations will now find that they employ if not a large but a significant percentage of women who are in the mid-career stage. An enhanced perception and understanding of these women, their careers, career choices and paths in addition to associated factors like work life integration and how such factors affect the decisions that women take regarding their work, life and career can aid organisations in making positive efforts so that these critical female resources can be retained.


Mid-career women and their Significance to Indian Industry - A business case

In India since the mid-nineties significant numbers of women specifically those with a professional and/ or higher education have been entering the labour market as compared to the previous decades (Rajan, 2010). Furthermore, in today’s knowledge economy a crucial source of competitive advantage for organisations is the human resources that they employ, therefore inducting and keeping quality talent is a critical concern (Bartlett and Ghoshal, 2002), in addition as labour shortages become more intense the race for retaining competent talent is becoming fiercer by the day (Frank and Taylor, 2004). Paradoxically, even as the requirement to retain resources is escalating, organisations seem to be unable to retain many of the highly educated female employees who work for them.

In 2009 a study titled “Understanding the Levels of Empowerment of Women in the Workplace in India” was released by The Confederation of Indian Industry, the findings reported that at junior management levels women made up 16 percent of the workforce, at middle and senior levels it fell to 4 percent each and in the highest leadership positions (CEO’s etc) the figure stood at only 1 percent. The study which was conducted in a mix of 149 medium and large size organisations is a clear indicator that either women’s careers are stunted at particular phases or they are opting out of the workforce which reflects in their abysmal participation rates in management.

Studies conducted by McKinsey & Company (2007, 2010), Credit Suisse Research Institute (2015) all report that the better-performing firms tend to have more women on their boards, In fact a Catalyst (2008) survey states that:

Catalyst research on Fortune 500 companies has demonstrated that gender diversity in corporate officer ranks was associated with better financial performance. Organizations with the greatest gender diversity in their corporate officer ranks significantly outperformed companies with proportionally fewer women at the top. Return on equity was 35.1 percent higher in the most gender diverse companies, and total return to shareholders was 34 percent higher.

This is a compelling argument for companies in India to go the extra mile to retain women employees, specifically at higher levels of management.

Researchers such as Brown, Brown and Anastasopoulos, (2002), Arfken, Bellar and Helms (2004), Flynn and Adams (2004) suggest that women appointees on boards and generally at higher levels of management promotes and generally raises the confidence of investors the reason for which being that women are viewed as more inclined to be transparent, moral and promoters of greater accountability. Further Brown and Brown (2001) state that 86 percent of boards where there is higher female representation ensure that codes of ethical conduct are enforced compared to 66 percent that had all male boards. Another documented perception is that boards where women representation is again higher ensures that investments are not in conflict with managerial misappropriation Brown and Brown (2001), Flynn and Adams (2004)

Thus the business case for Sustainable HRM is a clear one and should work at two levels firstly to understand women employees as prescribed by the psychological approach to Sustainable HRM and secondly after ensuring women are retained and reach higher levels of management or board levels the positive impact that women create on shareholders and company boards cannot be ignored.

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