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Women And Ambition: It's Time We Let The Twain Meet

08/03/2016 8:12 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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In this Aug. 23, 2012 photo, employees use headsets as they work on computers at the B2R center in Simayal, India. Before B2R arrived in Simayal, local women had little option but to marry right out of school, and educated young men had to travel far to seek respectable jobs. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das)

I have been reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg at a really slow pace. Slowly, because this book engrosses me deeply and makes me go on an inward journey. Sandberg, a high-profile, successful American executive, opens out her heart and shares her experiences and you realize that at the bottom of it all we are so similar. A woman in America and a woman in India. So I nod, go back and re-read portions, savouring them and internalizing them. I liked how she shares her initial discomfort with the dreaded F word--feminist--and then redefines it as a compassionate, warm woman who is not a man-hater, but just someone who is asking for equal opportunities and a choice to achieve her ambitions that often get buried under societal and gender expectations and stereotypes.

Household chores are a woman's domain, it is understood, and it doesn't matter if she also happens to have a hectic career of her own.

And then last week, I saw this detergent powder ad that hit home. A grandfather sees his adult daughter rushing about trying to juggle her home, family and career, while her husband relaxes in front of the TV. The grandfather muses about how he taught her the wrong lesson by not pitching in enough at home while she was growing up, and as a result she accepts that a man not contributing to domestic labour is the norm. This ad, which has earned praise from Sandberg no less, works so well because it illuminates an all-too-common reality.

Look around you, and you will see many such fathers around you, perhaps in your own home. Most men in my dad's generation did nothing at home, and there are many men even now who expect their wives to manage everything in the household! It is not as if they are uncaring or cruel, it is just the way they were brought up, and their wives never asked them or expected them to be any different. Household chores are a woman's domain, it is understood, and it doesn't matter if she also happens to have a hectic career of her own.

But, can we afford to continue in this manner? Not really. As women step out and chase careers, men have to pull up their socks and shoulder equal responsibility at home. Our husbands are trying to step up to the plate, helping with raising children and housework but much more needs to be done. Why? Because otherwise women will continue to drop out of the workforce when they have children. I have been there. I tried to work when my child was a toddler and it exhausted me. As if the guilt of leaving a little baby in the daycare wasn't bad enough, trying to juggle work, the maid and cooking made me feel like a robot. I wasn't happy. I was ambitious and wanted to do well in my career, but all the conditioning, my own experiences, made me choose staying home when they were babies and toddlers over working outside the home.

Our husbands are trying to step up to the plate but more needs to be done. Why? Because otherwise women will continue to drop out of the workforce...

Often, such a choice may be for no better reason than the woman giving up before negotiating a better deal with the spouse for a fair distribution of work. And where the woman lives with her in-laws, it will be very rare that her mother-in-law will let her pursue her career at the expense of the household chores. No matter how much she earns or how tired she is, she has to head to the kitchen at the end of the day while her husband sprawls out in front of the TV waiting for hot chapattis to be served.

Can we blame the men? Not really. We all are aware how taxing professional work is--12-14 hours of work and a crazy commute completely finishes you. You don't want to come home and do anything after that. Not play with kids, not help with any work. But think of those women who come home and cook, help their children with homework and plan for the next day. They are tired too but do this because it is their responsibility because no one else will help out. Weekends are similarly lost to cleaning and organizing the home, tasks that typically fall on a woman's shoulders because that's the way things have always been. Now with this immense workload, is it any surprise that women choose to drop out of jobs?

Many of us, including yours truly, found circuitous routes to grab hold of a career again after giving up what we were trained for...

The fact is that our society does not really nurture ambitious women. They are depicted in movies as selfish and quite possibly evil, neglecting home and hearth for personal gain. At work too, they may be written off for challenging roles after marriage because of their family responsibilities. There are many such stereotypes that prevent a woman from reaching out and achieving her full professional potential no matter how competent she is. Many of us, including yours truly, found circuitous routes to grab hold of a career again after giving up what we were trained for and competed fiercely to get qualified for. Many other really well-educated women end up leaving the workforce completely. What a sad economic waste this is.

I think it is time we had these conversations about social stereotypes and expectations. I'd like to note that men also suffer because of them. With the financial burden being entirely his to shoulder, his choices are also constrained.

And like the ad said, a man not helping his wife at home indirectly teaches the children to continue the same behaviour, with the cycle continuing generation after generation. I hope more mothers involve their sons in household jobs because chores are not gender specific. Do not hesitate to do this from the time the kids are young. And like Sandberg says, we also need women to lean in and support women both in the corporate space and at home. Help another woman to achieve her ambition. Enable her to work outside the home. Help her to lead a happy, fulfilled life, not one where she struggles to juggle work and home, either failing miserably at both or quitting one for the other.

I would like to close with these lines from Lean In:

"For decades, we have focused on giving women the choice to work inside or outside the home. We have celebrated the fact that women have the right to make this decision, and rightly so. But we have to ask ourselves if we have become so focused on supporting personal choices that we are failing to encourage women to aspire for leadership. It is time to cheer on women and girls who want to sit at the table, seek challenges, and lean in to their careers."

As we celebrate, International Women's Day, let's not forget to be grateful for what we have--our education, our thinking minds, our encouraging families, our skills and our careers--but also reflect on what we can do better. Let us all, men and women, lean in and enable women to achieve much more.

Let a woman's career not be dismissed as a hobby or a secondary priority!

This is an edited version of a post previously published on Rachna says.

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