Columns Gender Op-ed and Comment The National

Why women don’t work?

Thanks to this forum for discussing feminism. Specific thanks to Naina, Vinay, RG, NS– and even though others have a view on him– Krishna.
This appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi.

Caught between traditional values and modern ways
Shoba Narayan
Jul 2, 2013

During a recent trip to Dubai, I caught up with some old friends. Renu and Sid Shah met as students at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A), arguably India’s top management school. They’ve lived in Dubai for many years and were part of a vibrant IIM-A alumni network.
Many of the couples in the group had met while doing their MBAs. They dated all through business school and had gone on to make a life and family together. There was, however, one troubling pattern. Among the dozen or so couples, only one woman worked. The rest were doing interesting things – running an arts council, doing research on local textile traditions, training to become a life coach, raising gifted children – but not working full-time. They were homemakers, or housewives, as Indians put it. What happened to the high-achieving young women who had cracked the impossibly hard Common Admission Test (CAT) to get into IIM-A? Business Week recently reported that getting into IIM-A is harder than getting into Harvard. The acceptance rate there is 13 per cent yet, as the magazine reported, the institute “offered spots to only 0.25 per cent of applicants for the 2012-14 academic years”.
The women who met their spouses at IIM-A were part of this intellectual elite. Yet, they appeared to have thrown it all away to raise a family. Naina V, a management consultant calls this “haldi-kumkum feminism,” alluding to the haldi (turmeric) and kumkum (vermilion bindi that traditional Hindu women wear in the centre of their foreheads).
Her theory is that South Asian women of this generation are caught between the traditional roles set out for them by their mothers and western notions of feminism that they take from a Western college education. While they may be outspoken in online forums, they come home to become wives and mothers – like the generations of women before them. In other words, they don’t walk the talk.
I know countless women like this. Indeed, I have been accused of being a haldi-kumkum feminist myself. Like “limousine liberals”, who spout liberal values and egalitarian ideals while cruising around in the back of a luxury car, these feminists are smart women who look like they could rule the world. Except that they don’t. They rule their homes.
What disconcerts me about this particular species is not the fact that they are homemakers, per se. It is just that they behave like they could be so much more. You know the kind? These are women you meet at parties: educated, smart, and in many cases, more engaging than their husbands. Bimbos, they are not. What happened on the way out of that MBA degree? Why didn’t they cash in on it?
One businesswoman I know thinks that women are genetically programmed to take pleasure from the home and hearth. Her theory is that most young women aren’t cut out for business life.
Often, especially after the birth of children, they find work life boring. Running a home, planning play dates, devising recipes, dealing with staff, and throwing parties may look boring to men, but women revel in it. They don’t miss the stress of working and while they question their lack of career trajectory, they also lack the will to stake out their territory in the corporate jungle. I fit this profile to a T. All through my life, I have never held a job. I cited a variety of reasons: lack of a green card when I was in America; becoming pregnant when I did get one; and so it went, for years on end.
My daughters will be different, I hope. They will become ruthless, focused career women, who will reach for the stars. They will marry equal partners who will help them achieve their dreams. They will go from being enablers of the family to become an equal player in it. Or so I hope. Choice is a great word and one that we women use to kid ourselves: “It was my choice to stay home and raise a family.” But sometimes a choice is a compromise and we are too blind to recognise it as such.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir


  1. Shoba, first of all I am honored and humbled that you have included my comments in your article. [Folded hands!]

    I wonder though if this is a “troubling pattern”. There are lots of women (yes this includes married women with kids) who do continue to work. The key word in their discussions is “outsource” that is delegate physical-repetitive tasks (cooking, cleaning, picking up kids etc) to hired help so that motherhood and workerhood can be enjoyed. In fact it is interesting that Sheryl Sandberg speaking recently at an event (of which I am proud!) talked about “leaning in” that is working smarter and seizing opportunities. Her whole talk (and book) is based on “work better” not “choose to work over staying home”. This mindset is very important because I guess it helps focus on goals.

    I am actually surprised about the “not genetically programmed to work”. Geez, just that mindset alone will set us women back by a generation.

    B-school is an interesting deal. Top 5 US B-school (Wharton in my case) carries a greater weight when interviewing for global management jobs. My firm (and others in Big 4) recruits more heavily in the US/EU for global jobs and recruits Asia B-school for local jobs. Not sure if this is convenient (visa etc) or a trend. I am curious what Vinay and RG (bankers in the US) have to say about this.

    I guess in the end it comes down (for women) to choices and circumstances over tedium and temperament. Though Shoba, I do wonder what you’d have done if you had gone to Columbia Business School instead of Columbia Journalism school. I don’t see you as a finance geek. But seriously I can perhaps fairly see “Shoba Narayan’s Wall Street Behavior Beat”, a worthy competition to Erin Burnett or Maria Bartiromo.

    But most of all Shoba, I am humbled by your direct and frank admission about “don’t miss the stress of working” and “question lack of career trajectory” but “lack the will to stake out”. Too many women do end up taking this route. I am simultaneously angered and puzzled by this. I can only hope that by more of awareness and empowerment (more Sheryl Sandberg) we can reverse this trend for our daughters and their daughters after them.


    1. Naina I think you hit most of the points i.e. it’s a choice and circumstance and not tedium and temperament. In fact you’ve written about this before as well all of which I agree with. I also agree with your US B-school characterization.

      In I-banking I can say this. This is a weird profession. I guess in some jobs (e.g. programmer) one eventually grows to become a manager, director and takes on administrative and team building work and leaves the nuts and bolts (all-nighters to debug problems) to the programmers. But I-banking perpetually demands 80-90 hour work weeks even when you become deal lead. Client calls, negotiation sessions which invariably go all night, number crunching, travel/dinners/events, networking … it never ever stops. It is nigh impossible to hold down this sort of job and be a mommy to an infant. So the Wall Street woman/mommy executive is a rare species. (Naina you’re saying it need not be a dwindling species – where I agree.)

      So OK women leave I-banking. But many of them go to a less crazy job e.g. FIC or wealth management in finance because they still like finance-the-subject-they-studied or finance-the-industry.

      I guess it’s just me but I never really understood people (men or women) who just want to stay home and do the dishes. OK so if you don’t like finance then do consulting or software or whatever else .. but some form of work (besides home-work) is required to keep the brain (especially a brain developed through advanced graduate training) away from atrophy.

      (I am sure Shoba will say, going back to my very first posts, that this is because I don’t yet have kids and don’t know what that’s like. I can accept that, but I would still wish my wife – bless her heart – finds a good and satisfying job.)


      1. Vinay: you have to be an enabler. The tough thing is that there is no right answer. But if you believe that your wife wants to work but lacks the will, you have to enable her to do it. She will thank you for it.


  2. It’s because most of them go against their grail, period. As they start out with ears wet and fresh out of college, they sport the air of world beaters. Once inside, especially after induction training and the early honeymooning weeks, the need-to-perform hits hard on them. Initially, B-School training helps them to figure out excuses to proffer at the annual review (liberally citing inane expressions like business cycle, core competence, supply chain shackles, hierarchy bottlenecks) but not all the academic training in the world could get them to look at the mirror and admit “I suck at execution”.

    Those that admit it Man up, fail fast, get up and start walking again. The rest identify their holy grail and choose to revel in it, much to the chagrin of the weepy bunch of them sulking feminists.

    But don’t they look lovely and ladylike lighting lamps, decking up in nicely colored costumes, with that ornate plate of Haldi and Kumkum…? They sure do. Lot better than the delicately poised mannequins mounted on stilettos…

    Any day.


  3. That’s an interesting take. Reminds of the article by Anne-Marie Slaughter on “Why Women Can’t have it all”. Maybe people in general like taking off beat jobs-it’s just that it’s more socially acceptable for women to take them up. I have some Professors in my college too who have left the rigors of an IT job for the comfortable life of an academic. If they can lead fulfilling and happy lives irrespective of what they do, I guess good for them-be they guys or gals :).


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