- Posted: Fri, Mar 2 2012. 9:28 PM IST
The Good Life | Shoba Narayan
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Also Read |Shoba’s previous Lounge columns