Sometimes, “what if” history is way more fascinating than what really happened. What if, 20-odd years ago, B.P. Dakshayani had put her budding career on hold to look after her children and the large family she married into? Given what we know of Indian families and patriarchy in general, chances are she may have ended up as a teacher in a local school, if she worked at all. Instead, she did what many women end up doing: everything. She cooked, she cared, she cleaned, and then she coded. And years later, she guided the Indian Space Research Organisation’s Mars Orbiter Mission through outer space, ensuring that the project was successful. Today, Dakshayani is the scientist who will head India’s ambitious manned space project.

Not all women have managed this feat. A few years ago, the then CEO of PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi, caused global consternation when she said that women cannot have it all. “I don’t think women can have it all,” she said at the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2014. “We pretend we have it all. We pretend we can have it all.”

Coming on the heels of Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, a runaway success that told women that they could indeed have it all, Nooyi’s remarks seemed almost regressive. Except, on consideration, she was being the realist. “No one can have it all,” says Vishakha Mulye, executive director, ICICI Bank (ranked No. 39 on Fortune India’s Most Powerful Women list this year).

Can’t have cake and eat it too: ICICI Bank executive director Vishakha Mulye admits that not just women, no one can really have it all in life.  

Like Nooyi, Mulye has been caught between work and home and knows what she gave up in order to be successful in both places. In September 2006, when ICICI launched what was then the largest follow-on offering in India for around $1.8 billion, it meant sleepless nights for Mulye, then CFO. At work, she was catering to Indian markets during the day, American markets at night, and the Japanese market in between. And she wanted to be home with her nine-month-old daughter.

She remembers she used to reach office in the morning—regular banker’s hours— and go home around 3.30 p.m., spend a few hours with her baby, and get back to office at 9.30 p.m. and work through the night. “I could not have left her alone so I had to go back to take care of her and also come back and complete my work,” she says.

Mulye had taken a six-month break, a big deal at her level. Which is probably one reason for her to be always on her toes; when her children were small, she recalls that on various occasions she would fly to the U.S. at midnight, attend meetings during the day and return by the night flight. While she never says it, it seems clear that Mulye felt that she had to do it all.

Then there’s Dipti Aditya Gangal, who took up a part-time, temporary position at Tata Motors as a project consultant. The management studies postgraduate had earlier worked at WNS Global Services, and Mastek as a business partner, HR. She had worked for nearly five years when she took a long break to take care of her baby. “From a personal perspective, I felt that my child needed me the most,” she says, explaining why she decided to quit when she was doing so well.

She understands all that she gave up; “from a career perspective, in terms of the number of years that you have lost, you lose on your promotion, your pay hike, and financially, you are not independent”, she admits. Last year, she decided to reenter the job market, but was unable to find anything suitable after looking for six months. That’s when she decided to apply for the Tata SCIP (second career internship programme), a scheme designed to help women restart their careers after a break.

Conscious call: Genpact’s Geetanjali Lamba chose to take on a lighter role when she returned to work after a maternity break.  

Things are difficult enough for a woman trying to re-enter the workplace with support from the companies they join. Without that support, a large talent pool may well be lost. According to World Bank estimates, the female workforce in India declined from 35% in 1990 to 27% in 2017. The gender gap at workplaces has become so appalling that 20 million Indian women quit jobs between 2005 and 2012, while 24 million men joined the workforce in the same period.

Making it tough for women to return to work after any kind of break means that women often choose not to return. That’s why programmes like Tata’s SCIP, or those run by the likes of IBM, Hindustan Unilever, and Axis Bank, are so important.

Genpact’s Returning Moms Program helps returning mothers find a role of their choice—and claims to have redeployed 95% returning mothers. One of them was Geetanjali Lamba, vice president, Transition Excellence and RPA Nerve Center, Genpact.

Lamba had been leading learning and development at one of Genpact’s key divisions when she took an eight-month break to care for her baby. When she returned, aided by the Returning Moms Program, she decided to take on a less demanding and more flexible role in the human resources department. The change from a front-facing job with a huge portfolio to an “enabling function” did hit her hard, she says. But she adds, “I chose to take roles that gave me flexibility at work.”

Without strong support systems at home and at work, women often feel compelled to quit their jobs. Thanks to the innately patriarchal and inequitable social systems we have, it is seen as the woman’s “duty” to care for the home and children. Women are often made to feel guilty for choosing their careers over home life; men, on the other hand, aren’t held to the same standard. In a recent interview, Dakshayani of ISRO had said her husband did not feel responsible to do any household work. He, in reply, said he had a demanding 16-hour day as a doctor and so could not. Clearly, even the Mars mission isn’t as important as a man’s job.

Tough decision: It was hard for Intel India’s country head, Nivruti Rai, to decide not to quit her job even when her son was unwell.  

Some 22 years ago, Nivruti Rai, now country head, Intel India (ranked 45 on the Most Powerful Women list), had seriously thought of quitting her job. Her 18-month-old son had to undergo ear surgery. “It was so hard for me. I remember after the surgery, he was lying in the recovery room, with little smears of blood on his pillow. My heart broke and at that moment I thought of handing in my resignation,” Rai recalls.

A friend persuaded her not to, saying that the child would grow up and Rai would end up with nothing to do.

There are other heartening stories. When Ritu Mendiratta was working at an export house some years ago, she was refused maternity leave. “I want to make sure nobody else has to go through that,” says Mendiratta who is now manager, HR and administration, Oxfam India. When she interviews candidates, she doesn’t look at a break as a negative. “I feel that such people are more hungry to prove themselves and they will respect the job more.” She also sends regular updates to employees on leave, so they won’t feel they’ve missed out by being away.

Such sensitive policies and support systems are generally seen in large companies, particularly multinationals, according to staffing services company TeamLease. However, adds Rituparna Chakraborty, co-founder and senior vice president, TeamLease, smaller companies are generally more driven by financial factors. “We do encourage and suggest that our clients support a diversity agenda, but they are ultimately driven by their business needs and the nature of their requirements,” she adds.

Even as more companies look for ways to encourage women to return after a break, there are those who don’t recommend long breaks at all. Nupur Pavan Bang, associate director, Thomas Schmidheiny Centre for Family Enterprise, Indian School of Business, says that she had seen her friends take long maternity breaks and most of them quit their jobs thereafter. She was clear that she did not want to go down that path. “Why did I study so much if I had to lose it all? I didn’t do all this for nothing. If we study as much as men do there is no reason for us to sit back home,” she says, explaining that she took a three-month break when her daughter was born.

She is also very clear that it is up to the women to stay in touch with their work or with the industry they are in. “Their lack of experience can be compensated to a large extent by reading and keeping up to date with the latest happenings in their respective fields,” she says. What about second career programmes like SCIP? “There is nothing like part-time jobs,” she says bluntly. “It is pretty much meaningless for women who have had careers before having a child.”

Government intervention: Pinkstripes co-founder Sangya Mishr feels the government could subsidise maternity breaks.  

Bang has a point, but for many women, there is really no choice but to opt for a part-time job. The government is trying to help; for instance, the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, 2017, was rolled out last year for enabling a mechanism for hiring women.

Sangya Mishr, who runs Pinkstripes, a startup that helps women become industry ready, says that the law doesn’t really help, because companies don’t want to foot the bill. “Every employee that goes on leave is a cost to the company,” she says, adding that perhaps the government should take some of the burden from the firms.

An investment banker with SBI Capital, Mishr was forced to quit her job due to childcare issues. “It was a day-to-day mental struggle for me. I wasn’t happy quitting and if I went back, I would have become irrelevant very soon. It is very difficult to make a comeback in the same profession. I knew I had to reinvent myself,” she says. Her solution was to start a company that would help other women in her situation. There are other startups that are offering women a hand to reenter the workplace.

Break? No please: Harshbeena Zaveri, VC & MD, NRB Bearings,does not believe children suffer if women don’t take a break. “I never took a break and don’t recommend it.”  

Companies such as AVTAR I-Win, SHEROES, HerSecondInnings, and JobsForHer are working to encourage women to get back in the saddle after a break.

“I never took a break and don’t recommend it. I don’t believe that children suffer if women don’t take a break and my daughter also didn’t take a break,” says Harshbeena Zaveri, vice chairman and managing director, NRB Bearings, ranked 41 on the Most Powerful Women list. It’s not that Zaveri is being particularly unrealistic or unsympathetic to women. “I think it’s more important to influence men and families,” she says bluntly.

The need for societal change is something only a few like Zaveri are willing to talk about. But that, ultimately, is what makes the difference between what Sandberg and Nooyi believe.

(This story was originally published in the September - December special issue of the magazine)

Follow us on Facebook, X, YouTube, Instagram and WhatsApp to never miss an update from Fortune India. To buy a copy, visit Amazon.