14/09/2015 8:12 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Why Women In India have Jobs, Not Careers

Female office worker looking out of a window.
Ezra Bailey via Getty Images
Female office worker looking out of a window.

By Nidhi Mahesh Mehrotra

Shyamali is easily irritated these days. Every evening when she meets other women in the children's park or bumps into some of her college friends in malls over the weekend, her frustration rises a notch further. Almost all of her friends from college have good jobs in MNCs while she's confined to her home. "If all I had to do was to cook and clean and bring my son to the park every day, why did my father insist on me doing an MBA?" Her frustration is understandable. But she is not alone. There are thousands of girls who do post-graduation in business, media or other market-oriented disciplines but are made to sacrifice their career at the marriage altar.

Interestingly, this phenomenon is most evident in middle- and upper middle-class households, where a good education for a daughter is seen as a means of securing a better groom. Marriage is seen as the ultimate goal, not just an important milestone. With marriage, a woman ceases to be herself, losing herself in home management and relational roles: wife, daughter-in-law, mother. A career is an afterthought.

"[W]hen the time comes to make a choice, women, in a Pavlovian sort of way, 'choose' home above career as a conditioned response. This is anything but a free choice!"

Many will tell you that the empowered women can make a choice between household and career, and they by their own free will choose the former. But there is a fundamental fallacy in this argument. From the time of birth it is drilled in the impressionable minds of girls that their ultimate success lies in a happy household -- managed by them. That their main goal in life is to be a perfect wife and a perfect mother. In other words we are socially conditioned to believe that the home is a woman's utmost responsibility and that a man is only a co-inhabitant, not responsible beyond writing cheques. And when the time comes to make a choice, women, in a Pavlovian sort of way, "choose" home above career as a conditioned response. This is anything but a free choice!

In a much dissected interview, Indira Nooyi, one of the most successful women in the corporate world, shared that when she came home to share the news that she was to be the president of PepsiCo, her mother immediately shot her down, telling her to leave her "crown in the garage" and go fetch the milk. The interview started a big debate on whether the woman "can have it all", but in many cases the problem runs deeper. It is not about how much you can juggle and at what cost, but also about how empowered you are to make a free choice without being judged by a predetermined yardstick. The way we are conditioned, if a woman does not ensure that her home runs with clockwork precision, she is bound to feel guilty. And more often than not it is this guilt which makes her abandon many aspirations and choose an option that keeps her hearth warm and her heart seething.

Interestingly, advocates of women empowerment see economic independence as the decisive destination. A woman who earns and is capable of managing a household is regarded as successful. But is merely having an income a substantive achievement when you have the skills and training to reach far greater heights? It's fairly well documented that women often start out with gusto, earn equal pay but abandon the race halfway, settling for much less than they deserve. The result is that very few women make it to the very top of corporate hierarchy.

While marriage or fatherhood does not come in the way of a successful career for men, for women the same milestones become game-changers and they are checkmated. Becoming a mother is the most precious experience for a woman, and I am sure men too feel equal joy in becoming fathers. But our social structure ensures that only the woman is held responsible for rearing the child. Fathers are supposed to "support" her by "allowing" her to continue work and letting her seek professional childcare options. Fatherhood does not bring with it even a question mark for a man's career, but for a woman it often comes with a giant full-stop.

If a woman does continue on her career path, she needs to be a logistical genius. She needs to organise childcare, oversee impossible schedules, drop everything when there's a vaccination or any other issue. She's is also expected to stay on top of the laundry, the cleaning, the day's menu. Her career, naturally, suffers from these distractions, especially if she happens to be working from home. In any scenario she can attend to her career only after she has taken care of her first duty -- the home and the family. You may call it a matter of choice, but in my eyes, it is sheer hypocrisy. In reality, there is no choice at all.

"A career is not limited to just having a job and earning some income. It also means pursuing growth and better positions deserving of your education, experience and effort."

Unfortunately, this conditioning has persisted even in families with two or three generations of working women. In India, a career is not seen as a mandatory option for women, even among the most advanced and educated classes. A career is an indulgence until one "settles down" in marriage. In a country strained for resources, there are thousands of women who are taking a homeward turn putting their elite education and hard-earned experience to waste. Is this a desired phenomenon?

All the schemes for educating and empowering girls and women will fall short unless there's a serious change in mindset. A career is not limited to just having a job and earning some income. It also means pursuing growth and better positions deserving of your education, experience and effort. Most parents provide for a good education for their daughters so that they can be independent and stand on their feet "if required". Education is thus an exigency resource. It is a flawed premise, steeped in inequality.

We have nurtured the wrong notion for centuries and, as I mentioned, become conditioned to it. It is time this chain is broken. Both men and women must have their roles in society re-scripted. It should be acceptable and normal for traditional roles to be switched. Men needn't be providers. They can stay home and be primary caregivers for children while the woman works and earns enough to keep the ship running. We have discussing women's rights for a long time, but not enough focus has been trained on the duties that bind her. It's time we changed that.

Steeped in social conditioning girls are often clueless about their career path even when they are enrolled in professional courses. And perhaps that is why when a visiting professor from UCLA asked a class of 50+ female MBA students in an Indian institute what they aspire to be only three could say with any conviction that they were headed towards a corporate career. Obviously, we have a long way to go and the first step is yet to be taken.

Nidhi has been out there in the fascinating Media and Communication market for more than 15 years.

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