Women's Issues

Women’s role

Rewrote this many times.  Interesting topic.

Why doesn’t Priyanka Gandhi reach for the national office that could be hers for the taking?

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is a magnificent campaigner. In terms of sheer charisma, she beats her brother hollow. She has that preternatural ability to gauge the pulse of the people. It is much more than empathy—every good spiritual guru has empathy. The currency of campaign politics, however, is connecting to a crowd and giving voice to their dreams. It is the ability to deliver the same feel-good factor to a crowd that empathy offers to an individual. This emotional connect combined with force of personality equals charisma. Indira Gandhi wasn’t born with it but she developed this quality. Her granddaughter has it in spades, and yet, she doesn’t use it nearly enough. What is Priyanka afraid of? Why doesn’t she reach for the national office that could be hers for the taking?

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg says that women aren’t ambitious enough. They compromise before they need to. They opt to be dentists rather than surgeons because dentistry offers more work-life balance—this at age 20, before they’ve met their spouse. They put off their childhood dream of starting a school or a restaurant because they are busy helping their husband fulfil his dream—and holding the family together while he does. Women rein in their ambition because they believe success will come with costly sacrifices. Worst of all, many women don’t even try; they don’t “lean in”, as Sandberg says. They compromise from the get-go. Why?


Charismatic: If she chooses, Priyanka Gandhi could have a role model in Sarojini Naidu. Photo: Atul Yadav/PTI

Charismatic: If she chooses, Priyanka Gandhi could have a role model in Sarojini Naidu. Photo: Atul Yadav/PTI


Bangalore-based Sujata Keshavan, founder of Ray+Keshavan, one of India’s top design firms, believes that it may have to do with economics— and perhaps genetics. She talks about how difficult it was for her to persuade young women to continue to work after they got married. These weren’t women with constraints. They were talented and highly educated. They didn’t fit the conservative stereotype in which the in-laws forced them to resign from jobs to become homemakers. What’s more, they had supportive husbands and were not planning to have babies anytime soon. “Even so, if their husbands could support them financially, they chose to stop working,” says Keshavan. “This leads me to believe that women are wired to be homemakers, perhaps because of centuries of social conditioning that is now embedded in their psyche.” 

The fact that Keshavan believes this is particularly damning because her career is testimony to the fact that women aren’t “wired” this way. She founded Ray+Keshavan, ran it successfully and sold it to global brand company The Brand Union. Perhaps she is an anomaly. Or perhaps early financial exigencies forced her to work. So what’s the way forward? I ask her. What do we tell our daughters if we want them to be strong, successful career women? “Tell them to marry a poor man,” she says with a laugh, voicing exactly what I have been thinking.

After 50 years of feminism, it has come to this. Or has it? Are women the resilient gung-ho crusaders who have broken glass ceilings? Or are we escapist homemakers (and I do say this pejoratively in this context) who don’t have the courage to pursue our convictions—or our careers?

Human resources adviser and Mint columnist Hema Ravichandar disagrees with this analysis. “There are two types of women—those that take a job to find a life partner; and those who take a job to make a career of it,” she says. “Sujata’s take might hold true for the former but not for the latter. Of course, even those women who are not quitters may fall into the Mommy trap, or the transfer trap, or the H-4 visa trap, where they cannot work and have to compromise.”

I was raised by a mother who believed that women ought to be like “creepers” that hold the family tree together. I came of age at Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts, where strong successful women taught me the trenchant politics of feminism. I am married to a man who believes that nurture can trump nature; that women can trump the “wiring” that may cause them to be like creepers or homemakers. My personal belief is that we women have a fear—not of failure but of success. We are afraid to reach for the stars because we are worried about what it will cost us— and our families. We are biologically and psychologically more invested in our children. So we don’t reach; we don’t push forward because we are already calculating the costs, before we need to. When the going gets tough, we compromise and pull back.

Bharati Jacob, founder-partner of venture capital firm Seedfund, sees something similar in women entrepreneurs. “I often see women start businesses and the moment it starts to scale, and they think they need outside money, they rope in their husbands. Why don’t they have the confidence to do it on their own?” she asks. Put another way, why is Robert Vadra (Priyanka’s husband) involved in her campaign?

Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, who authored The First Sex: The Natural Talents of WomenAnd How They are Changing the World, disagrees that women entrepreneurs cop out. Rather, she says, “Tomorrow belongs to women.” Women’s natural talents: networking, people skills, connecting, nurturing and “web-thinking” are more suited to this information age. Women will start businesses, she says, and get ahead in the fields of medicine, education and philanthropy. With fascinating anecdotes and hard science, Fisher links the part of the brain that will help women fly—quite literally (Fisher is an identical twin, and her twin sister is a hot-air balloon pilot).

That said, even Fisher admits that women will not break into the top levels because they are more willing to strive for work-life balance. That doesn’t matter, she says. There will be a few men at the top, a tonne of women in the middle, and a lot of men at the bottom—construction workers “too drunk to zip up their pants”, as she says.

What women need are role models who shifted the paradigm; who played the game, not by men’s rules but by their own. Sarojini Naidu stands out as a shining example of this paradigm shift. She wasn’t born to dynastic power. Yet, she navigated her way through the male-dominated Congress party and held her own with style and substance.

Priyanka seems like a woman who is trying hard to strike this masculine-feminine balance. Should she decide to take the plunge into full-time politics, she has a role model in her mother. Should she choose to ignore the salacious Jawaharlal Nehru-Padmaja Naidu link, she might also be well-served by studying the style of this “Nightingale of India”, and imbuing it with a charisma that is all her own.

Shoba Narayan is neither creeper nor career woman. Like all women, she tries to be both, and therein, perhaps, lies the problem.

Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com


  1. I have another question. Could it be that her definition of success is very different from society’s and she’s really working on herself in a different way? Especially since it is clear that she could reach out and pluck being a Congress leader like one would pick low hanging fruit.

    What if someone ends up going beyond this definition of women and gender to really do what he/she wants to? Then there’s no need for balance – just life! Then, to me, the goal that feminism was working towards has been reached. It is much harder being happy in yourself without having the outward personal trappings of success to peg with – a car/driver you earned, a position, professional respect, etc. In my opinion, these factors make it much more difficult to truly figure out the personal in a sustainable way: we know now that there are equally miserable rich people in the world.


  2. Dear Shoba,
    I don’t know you at all and we each live in different continents, yet I feel a very strong resonance with your writing and sensitivity.
    You seem to be researching very similar topics as me, feminine and masculine balance in leadership, and within each one of us also. You also provide a wide range of women role models, which has been my quest for many years now, as a leadership and communication skills coach.
    Very touched by your writing, grateful to have discovered you thanks to web’s serendipity. I was searching for Helen Fisher and women’s role, as I am designing my first TEDx talk for the end of the month, and I stumbled upon your blog.
    Serendipity is a blessing
    From France to India


      1. Thanks for such a warm welcome, Shoba!
        I read your article in the Mint newspaper and I was shocked by the comments, which I found filled with ignorance and even hate.
        I was wondering how you handled this and where did it come from.
        I was not expecting at all such reactions and it even scares me in advance I must admit!
        Tell me more please!


  3. What happens when the woman is ambitious knows she will succeed, has lots of plans to dow ell in the future but her husband holds her back in a very passive aggressive way? eg. i wanted to move cities to a center with bigger jobs, better pay, he said oh not possible more xpensive city etc. we finally moved but after a lot of struggle on my part and after losing years. How does it work when on the surface the husband seems to be liberal and support you but is actually holding you (leave alone support you, just dont be an impediment)


  4. Shoba, You are so right. Women never really reach their true potential, if they get married and have children. I have seen this in many of my friends. Some of them have the calibre to become CEOs of companies, but they choose not to. Career ambition, drive, competitiveness, all these take a back seat when children arrive. If a woman decides to work outside her home, then her choice is between becoming a mediocre mother/ home maker and pursuing a mediocre career. If she excels in one, she fails at the other making her feel guilty either way. So she chooses the middle path of mediocrity. There are scenarios where a married woman with children can succeed in her career. If she is in a supportive joint family set up, where the children are looked after by their grandparents, and her home and kitchen are managed efficiently by maids, servants and a retinue of support staff, then she can pursue her passions and excel in what she does. Failing that, most women will always choose to put their children and family first.

    About Priyanka, I have nothing against her. But why should we encourage another member of the Nehru dynasty to rule India? Haven’t we had enough of them? Aren’t there many other smart, thinking women who should be given an opportunity to lead India?


  5. This article really resonated with me. I recently left a fairly high-status job to focus on my kids and finding a creative space that worked for me, a decision that puzzled nearly all my family and friends. But finding that work-life balance is important to women and we are happier for it. Maybe the problem is with the way we (and by we, I mean society) define success.


  6. Shobha, you write well and are much more experienced in blogging and the like than I. Of course, I do not hold you any grudge for this, but rather am happy for you.

    Yet, when we talk of a typical Indian family, it is always better if our writings were to promote a spirit of togetherness and sharing, instead of competitiveness and one-upmanship. I think that it is about time for us to learn to identify ourselves with various sections of the population in a spirit of harmony and togetherness (unless there are sharp differences in shared values, of course!).

    Of course, you and I could always agree to disagree on such matters.


    John Jacob


  7. Loved this, Shoba! You make me think about a lot of my choices. Sandberg’s TED talk was fascinating and she’s right, that women do ourselves in. But I’d like her to show me the man who will chip in completely and totally, like a sponge in water, take on her role when her work commitments take over her life. When I leave town for a week, I have a zillion things to take care of before I leave home. When my husband leaves home, he packs his bags, his laptop and flies. I can never really leave home behind. He leaves home behind completely. I think it goes beyond what women feel. The problem is men don’t pick up enough after us. And this is true in every culture, not just in our Indian culture. Sandberg cannot convince me otherwise. As always, love your work!


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