Women and careers

What irritates me about the comments below is not the hate-mail bit but the fact that people didn’t “get” that I am a flagrant feminist.
  • Columns
  • Posted: Fri, Mar 2 2012. 9:28 PM IST
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

Also Read |Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

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Showing 13 of 13 comments

  • Suchitr_desai

    This is really ridiculous, under-thought piece. Women who have never worked shouldnt be calling themselves career women. It really is offensive to most working women. Mint should rethink its columns. It owes its readers some integrity. Does anyone not question such columns before running them? Last I checked people needed some qualifications to hold a job. I am sure in a country like India, the labour market is not that tight that Mint is forced to run such columns. Really irresponsible to the reader. So tomorrow if she wants to write a column on Middle East politics, should the readers have to read that too? On one hand you have the likes of Anthony Shadid, who upheld all that was right about journalism and reporting, and on the other you have this lame excuse for a column. Some things never change. Progress in India is to remain stationary.

  • Medtio

    Wired to be homemakers? Nice excuse. Basically, women, especially indian, like to believe they are sacrificing themselves on the altar of family. The truth is they dont want to work, they are taking the easy way out. Just like our lady author here. Ladies, honestly, Are you telling me, your husbands are where they are because of you? Most indian women are busy living the good life, pun intended. Getting fat, inept At housework, general high nuisance value. This column itsekf is proof that Too much time is a punishment

  • Vidya

    H-4 visa is given to women who travel with their husbands. If they are qualified and have recognizable, meaningful degrees they get an H-1. It’s a separate matter that in true Indian ghetto style the likes of Infosys etc clog up the system by using up H-1s while their ” engineers” warm the benches, but if you are with a reputable enough firm you really shouldnt have a problem.

  • aarvee

    What makes the author think that she is “not wired” right? It is also possible that Priyanka is not taking the plunge because she is simply incapable. What has she achieved so far to prove her potential to hold high office?

  • abhay chawla

    shobha this is a strange piece as it titles about priyanka and talks about women in general. i disagree with
    Sheryl Sandberg “that women aren’t ambitious enough.” if they wern’t sheryl wd not be where she is. most of the conventional tags for women wd not apply to priyanka considering she comes fm a political family that has see almost continuous power since independence. maybe, just maybe you cd have let priyanka tell this herself n then  analyzed.

  • Very good article. Echoes my sentiments…loved the part about..neither a creeper nor a career woman. I have come across so many women..strong, ambitious with good careers ahead of them..suddenly give it all up for all or some of the reasons mentioned in the article above. The frustration mounts especially in the mid- thirties and early forties..when you suddenly realize..is this all there is to life? These same women, who have daughters, are suddenly sceptical aout getting them married when they grow up! Time for a change, maybe?

  • Manish Prasad

    There are wars being fought, central banks trying to respond to recessions, politicians battling it out in the world’s largest superpower, and all Ms. Narayan can think of are silly, housewifish issues. Really, Ms. Narayan, what profession were you really qualified for had it not been ALL the support you had to provide your husband? Maybe you should have married a poor man, and then we would have seen whether Mint would have carried your column, or for that matter, whether Random House would have cared to print your silly, little cookbook. Mint, granted you probably can’t afford to pay your columnists, but having people like Ms. Narayan write garbage like this is killing what until recently used to be a decent newspaper.

  • Skyent

    Why glorifying Priyanka Vadra? What are her qualifications other than being the daughter of the chair person of a political party? What are her educational credentials? Is she a visionary who has made a difference in any constituency she campaigns in? Is she serving people in any capacity? I am not sure what charisma you are talking about, but any “tamasha” can be a crowd-puller especially when it involves to have a glimplse of a  gori chick! That does not necessarily translate into votes. This is amply evident from exit polls in UP where party she was campaigning for is trailing at the bottom! Anyways, good article/story sunk due to bad example and und0ue emphasis on a bad example! More apt title to this story, could have doen better job to convey the message of the story!

  • Sailiverma23

    The real question is why is shobha narayanan not afraid of putting her idiotic thoughts out there? Why do we need to hear about women and careers from a woman who has never put in a day’s worth of work? Why should we listen to women or men, who aren’t where they are on the basis of merit and merit alone? Is India ever going to be a meritocracy? Or are we doomed to sub standard columns and poor qualith columns for life?

  • namah

    one difference i have noticed:

    woman entering a job thinks: am i good enough for this job as a woman

    man thinks: am i good enough for this job,

  • V Anand

    You will know how media-friendly or charismatic Priyanka is when you ask her difficult questions. Then the dimples will vanish.

  • Amused

    “turn to the husband for capital….” that holds if your business is dhokla classes for the neighbourhood housewives, or tupperware, or baking classes! Mount-what-college?!snigger, snigger, snigger! The reason priyanka is popular is because she is white as a sheet, something we indians love.

    (Edited by a moderator)

  • Womenslib

    Oh my god! This is the height of hypocrisy. And what career were you planning shobha, a rocket scientist, prime minister, engineer, doctor, pizza maker?creeper shreeper!Ask woman out there who really have to mange work, home, everything. Qualified women. They arent dropping out of the qorkforce because it is some whim, some luxury, some baby on the horizon.It’s easy to sit on the sidelines and pass judgement, having never really worked for anything. And i cant believe that lame conclusion,” marry a poor man.” what has marriage got to with anything? Spoken like someone who marrried into security, who was husband-hunting, this really flies in the face of independence, independent thought, independent women. The reason there arent as many women out there, is not because they dont push themselves(speak for yourself lady) , a big part of it is its a man’s world. Women are dropping at an average rate of 9% on wall street, ask your husband how many women he has worked with, or for that matter how many has he hired? These women are not dropping because of “work-life balance,” an outmoded thought for qualified women, these are changing times, nuclear families, the old saas bahu excuse doesnt fly here. They are dropping out because it’s a boy’s club. Sit on the sidelines and talk about shattering glass cielings-conviction really is a luxury of those on the sidelines. Just because you went husband-hunting, dont generalize. And trust you to fawn over PG, IG, useless women who got everything on a platter. Look at the mess The gandhi legacy has left us in. But you wouldnt know that sitting in your ivory tower. O and by the way, there are women who are fighting against the steroetypes all the time, so before commenting on them just think twice. It really is not your place. And also, the right husband can help you acheive much more than you dreamt of, so the reason girls fashion themselves into “creepers” are looking for husbands who wouldnt be challenged by them. It’s a different type of man really who marries a woman who he knows wont threaten him. So honestly girls who look to do this are the ones who are looking for the easy ride, they are the ones who are coping out so to speak

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