Columns Mint The Good Life for Mint Lounge Women's Issues

Be the woman of your choice

The piece below had the following comment from a reader.
More than KV Kamath, the credit in ICICI should go to N Vaghul. The environment was conducive for the growth of women managers and the necessary flexibility was extended to women. They were given leadership roles during his tenure and by the time KVK came in most of them (lalita, kalpana, Chanda, Shikha, renuka et al) were in very senior positions. Of course, it is to KVKs credit that he took things to their logical conclusion and other women managers rose to prominence as well. Recently a global fund manager from US ranked that in all his experience ICICI is probably the most gender friendly corporation in the world!

Be the woman of your choice


How can the rest of us emulate the women who have risen high in a male-dominated?

Shoba Narayan

It has been a great few weeks for women. Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize, in literature. Malala Yousafzai didn’t. She is young. If she stays the course, she can earn it in the coming years. The Nobel committee—perhaps smarting from 2009 when they gave the Nobel Peace Prize too early to the US President Barack Obama, who didn’t deserve it then and hasn’t done much to deserve it since—gave it instead to an organization so obscure nobody has even heard of its acronym—OPCW. Janet Yellen will likely be confirmed as the first female chair in the Federal Reserve’s 100-year history.
India’s 206-year old State Bank of India recently got its first female head, Arundhati Bhattacharya. Should he wish to, one of chairman Cyrus Mistry’s legacies could be mentoring and promoting women within the upper echelons of the Tata group, something that no Indian man in a position of power, save ICICI Bank chairman K.V. Kamath, has done.
The good news continues on the education front. Elite American universities are doing a lot of soul-searching about inclusion. Harvard Business School (HBS), under dean Nitin Nohria, just completed an ambitious “gender makeover” programme where it tried to answer the question: Why were women who entered with the same grades and scores as men falling behind during the course of the HBS programme? Under Maria Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College, women enrolments in its computer science programme went from 10% of the class in 2006 to 48% this year. In fact, most of the top US schools, including Harvard, Princeton, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Wellesley, University of Pennsylvania, and my own alma mater, Mount Holyoke, all have (or have just had) female presidents. This is not the case with the Indian Institutes of Technology or Indian Institutes of Management.
In a bow to this issue, I must mention the sad news of the demise of María de Villota—a trailblazing former Formula One driver, who died last week in Seville, Spain. How did she rise high in a male-dominated sport? How did Yellen and Bhattacharya do it? How can the rest of us emulate them?
India has about 30% women in the workforce, but this shameful statistic includes vast sections of society who are not the target of this piece. The target of this piece is much more modest: if you are a Mint Lounge reader who doesn’t work or you have a wife/sister/daughter who doesn’t work, this piece is for you. Why aren’t these women working?
There are many reasons why women drop out of the workforce, or don’t enter or re-enter it. Financial security is one culprit; raising children is another. Have you heard this line before? Have you uttered it? “My husband works such long hours. I have to stay home with the kids”.
This “Mommy Myth”, as books call it, looms large in the minds of women. They truly believe that their children will turn out better if they are home. I would like to suggest that this is not the case.
The factors that create successful individuals are complex. You’ll have to begin by defining success. Is it an achievement in the worldly sense or about integrity and character? Each requires a different approach.Sh
Most successful Silicon Valley (US) companies are run by ruthless, self-absorbed men who lack empathy and compassion. Are these the kinds of individuals that you would like to raise—and nothing wrong with wishing that your son or daughter turns out to be a Twitter founder like Jack Dorsey or Evan Williams, both of whom brushed out co-creator Noah Glass from the equation without compunction.
When moms stay home, what is the end-goal? If you want a high-achieving son, having an absent or estranged father seems to help: witness Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos, former US president Bill Clinton, Obama, and the late founder of Apple Inc. Steve Jobs. Then again, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, Microsoft creator Bill Gates, Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg and former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton all grew up in stable homes. Which of these environments do you recreate and will it presuppose greatness? Some, like psychologist Steven Pinker, argue that it is all genetics anyway. In his book The Blank Slate, Pinker suggests that a lot of our character and personality is because of our genes, something that Freakonomics author and economist Steven Levitt substantiates. In a provocative piece: “Do Parents Matter?”, Levitt and his co-author say that letting children watch television for hours does nothing to reduce their intelligence. “Parenting technique is highly overrated,” they argue. Reading to them at bedtime does little to increase their IQ either. So parents, particularly mothers, can relax and do the things that they want to instead of doing it “because it is good for the child”, etc.
Staying home to shape your child’s character is a dubious proposition at best and doesn’t account for future events. Circumstances can prod people into greatness, or they can cause great people to stumble and fall like former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. director Rajat Gupta. Some part of it has to do with dumb luck or destiny. Geography is an influencer: People who had a peripatetic childhood are different from those who stay in one place.
Perhaps it is time to accept that parents, specifically mothers, are just one cog in the wheel of a child’s life. Our contributions are more modest than we would like to believe. If you accept this argument, the only remaining question is: What do you want to do? Not you as a mother, daughter, sister or spouse, but you as an individual who happens to be a woman. Choose your bliss because the cliché is true: You have only one life to live.
Shoba Narayan’s bliss is morning coffee on a jasmine-scented swing with Raga Hamsadhwani in the background.


  1. Shoba I actually do not at all find it empowering.

    I won’t use my “temperament” as an excuse for not finding the career that suits me. OK, RG’s point may be that 80-hour work week is not suitable for a woman whose immediate priority is children. But that doesn’t mean the woman should stay away from a career in banking.

    I refuse to believe that my initial choices to do arts then journo in NYC are the limits to my learning and ability and ultimate career prospects. OK I don’t remember trigonometry now, but my hubby says they don’t really use all that gobbledegook in I-banking anyway. (Nothing more than add/sub/mult/div, is what he says!) I am beginning to read books on finance etc to better understand this deal. Maybe I won’t do a travel-the-world I-banker job, but surely there is a desk job in banking or finance that I can do, if I want to do it.

    I guess my basic problem is using gender or temperament or some other excuse to stop women from finding what they are really good at. I also happen to believe that all people – men, women – can surprise themselves if they put their mind to it. I still have many good years left. When I am 50, what I want to say to myself is “I achieved something beyond just home and children”, not “I really liked staying home and circumstances worked out that way and oh, by the way, my temperament is the reason I did not go into XYZ career”. If I ended up in the latter camp then my brains, my abilities, my life – would be a waste.


    1. Vaidehi: Hi. I agree with you in many of your points. I don’t believe in using gender as an ‘excuse,’ as you say. But our disagreement is around temperament, which is gender-neutral. There are boys who are not suited to i-banking (my nephew being one of them. he is going to be a doctor). But as for your last point about pushing yourself beyond what you think you can do— boy, that really resonates with me. You go, girl!!!


  2. I guess the Mommy Myth exists only when it is created. I find it fascinating that while so many things are changing in favor of women, there are still articles like this talking about Mommy Myth etc. Shoba mam though I don’t know you personally, it looks like Mommy Myth is a syndrome you encountered and that’s a choice you made – to stay home. Many women (also many men) live their lives dabbling in a few things and not really finding a proper career. But as many have said things are changing a lot and its a more positive time for women now.

    I agree with the other poster that demonizing men is not the way to go. As the other person said some careers are very very demanding. Also women are equally cutthroat, just to name Jayalalitha and Mamta Banerjee.

    I can’t find a basis for “staying home” being “not beneficial to child”. The quality of parenting matters more than the quantity or any specific activity like reading at bedtime. Parents who engage their children in interesting ways – doing puzzles, making things, doing community work – will end up with successful kids. This probably means that parents who are actively working, not just tending house, will have more ideas and experiences and, in turn, end up with more things to do with their kids.

    I think I’ll restate what RG said. The mommy who just stays home and bitches about evil men (or about how her life “has been”) is doing herself and child a disservice. She should find something better to do.


  3. Well well well, what have we here, a spirited debate.

    First off I will (and maybe everyone should) refrain from revisiting Shoba’s old life as we’ve covered that subject already and she has graciously given her point of view as well.

    Mommy Myth is changing. My wife (also WCC Chennai) who 1-2 years ago was the perfect fit to the “arts graduate” mold, today she is thinking about doing a marketing or sales type of course that will get her employable skills. I think this is the big difference. In her time Shoba and her friends wistfully waxed about “when they worked”, that was the mood then. But today women (almost all of my wife’s friends) are constantly talking about how they can make it work, and it’s fascinating how creative they can get about shopping cooperatively, hiring and scheduling help etc. I also think the Internet has evolved tenfold since the 90s and there are literally thousands of communities to help support women in this regard.

    What is the end goal of a mommy staying home? I agree with RG that it should be more than “run the house and be there for the kids (and bring them to classes etc)”. Having a strong mommy role model is very powerful – a testament to how it can be made to work. Non-working mommies, I suppose, should do their best – sort of a Suzuki method for everything. Actually Shoba has already pointed out that mommy is only one cog in the wheel. So when that part of the job is over maybe mommy gets back to her day job.

    The practical reality is that the whole “training and getting a job” thing still works only early in life. It’s relatively difficult for a middle-age woman to retrain/retool and return to the workforce at a later stage in life.

    One thing is for sure. Women growing up in the 80s had a very different environment than women growing up today. Today’s women have much better information and role models and I feel their decisions and actions and their lives will be very different than their sisters before.

    By which I mean, RG, the “mommy who bitches [at the blue bitch of a laptop]” need not be shot – its a waste of a bullet. Today’s girls will ignore that sort of mommy and gravitate to a cooler sort of mommy.


  4. RG I read your post a couple of times. At the end it actually just made me depressed for some reason.

    I guess as you say the financial pressure plus “green card conflict” plus the fact that a woman’s career may not have really taken off, all may be one set of reasons why women quit working. But for a woman childbirth is a significantly different physical and psychological experience. Once the baby is in your arms nothing else, job or money, really matters. I guess that might be a “time in life” thing because after the initial 1-2 years many women do want to (and end up going back to) their jobs anyway.

    I agree there should be more spousal support (and other support) to help women make better choices for themselves. But sadly this is not always the case.

    Your last paragraph is a real downer and I don’t agree with it at all. OK I cannot perhaps do my children’s maths homework when they are in high school but I put it to you that that is not the “most powerful image”. There are 1000 other things I do so my baby knows mommy loves her, and any good book (or doctor) will tell you there is a “bond” that men will never understand.


    1. I’m surprised Shoba hasn’t chimed in! RG I read your post and though you have some valid points I have to say I am on Vaidehi’s side. Being a mommy is a great deal more than being a teacher. Your wife would agree.

      I guess there are well known reasons why women quit working. But I think one big factor is also whether the woman in question had a job to begin with. Many women, for whatever reasons, end up with non-employable skills. Somehow this includes “arts” types, all those college days with poetry and history and psychology don’t ultimately make for marketable job skills. But then again Shoba once wrote about her friends who were lawyers and bankers who quit. It’s interesting that the Bump study you mentioned, RG, (yes I googled it) indicates many women do end up back at work a few years after motherhood.

      I think a supportive set of parents is a big factor in children being successful. To that extent I agree RG that a home-bound mommy who only resents her choices or regrets her situation in life is a bad thing, but again that’s not always the case, and motherhood is bigger than that.

      I think RG you reacted to the characterization of men. I empathize, but I also offer that Shoba is not really like that and I’m sure – if I can very briefly speak for her – that she is not anti-men by any measure.


  5. OK I’ll be the first to say I don’t really agree with many things here.

    So we’ll start with the positives. Women’s statistics are on the rise in college enrolments (STEMB whatever) and corporate echelons and careers in general. There is awareness and it is spreading. Indian women’s stats are lower, as are other India stats in education and career etc.

    I disagree with the Mommy Myth. My wife works (in science) and as long as she’s happy with it, it’s cool. Our discussions around kids are always focused on “how we can make it work” and never on why she would feel the need to stay home. Many couples we know think quite similarly. I recently read a survey that listed several factors for why women quit. Many women feel a financial pressure to contribute to income and that “not working” is a financial luxury. But then the same survey describes that over 40% of women anticipate returning to work at some point. This leads me to believe that “to work or not” is a personal choice that combines factors like financial, “feeling the need to”, family structure and constraints like work status in USA. But the message these days is “it is possible to balance work-life”, not “it is preferable to not work”.

    I also disagree with your characterization of men in Silicon Valley. Many of my female doctor friends are equally pointed with their rising female subordinates. Medicine (the residency) is a long and arduous career and requires very long hours. It is simply not for everyone. Even investment banking is not for everyone, many men are not cut out for it. Silicon Valley, the startup world, is the worst in terms of time demands, you are literally on call 24 hours a day. Many men with steady jobs don’t opt for this. (Not for nothing but Facebook and Yahoo insiders are quite clear that Sandberg and Meyer are equally cut throat and ruthless when it comes to business decisions.)

    On this point I think we should focus on reality i.e. the idea that certain careers are very demanding of people in terms of mind and body (and personality). Support is available to handle the home stuff etc… but again it’s a personal decision. I strongly disagree with the idea that men are guilty. It may have been true in a previous generation, but today’s environment is a whole sea change. KVKamath and many others are setting a fine example.

    I also disagree (well I guess agree with Shoba) on the “staying home is good for kids” idea. A mom who stays home but can’t help with high school homework, especially STEMB subjects, is not very useful anyway. Young girls deserve more. The most powerful image to a young girl is that her mommy helped her crack a STEMB problem and was able to relate the story of how she felt when she had first studied it. It is glorious and self-perpetrating moment of development, just like Marie Curie teaching Irene Curie. The mommy who just stays home and bitches about evil men and glass ceilings is doing her daughter a great disservice; she should either shut up or get shot.


    1. Hello all:
      I find myself in the strange position of agreeing with much of what RG says. I think his point that certain careers are good for certain personality types is a great one (be they men or women). I don’t know why Vaidehi is depressed by this, but I think what RG is saying is quite empowering actually.
      And like many of you pointed out, I like men 🙂
      Many of my best friends are men.

      I am also wondering about Naina’s point on why women “choose” the arts even though it is not an employable area.
      I am glad about Vinay’s point on flexible jobs and agree with him about retraining. I would love to be a documentary filmmaker but simply don’t want to invest in the studying of it.
      Kaushik: I wasn’t demonizing men. If anything, this piece was an attempt to get my women-friends not to use the excuse of being mommies to stop working. If I was blaming anyone, it was the mommies.


      1. I guess I will be the detractor here. Why, Mr NS, is this “nicely done”? Shoba has apparently done a total 180 to agree with RG?
        Shoba I disagree with RG and find his comment depressing re mommies being able to help their daughters with STEM homework. Like you I am an arts mother and I guess I can still do STEMB up to a point but honest to God I don’t really remember trigonometry or calculus anymore. However, I do know how to provide all the love and affection to my child when they encounter difficulties in life. RG says mommies who can’t help their kids with homework are “not very useful anyway”. He is talking about you and me, Shoba, which is neither correct or fair. How you find it “empowering” is puzzling to me.
        OK some of his other points i.e. certain careers fit for certain people are valid, but this one thing about mommies and homework – hell no.


        1. Vaidehi: Not a 180 degree turn. Just a selective one. RG’s last paragraph was just plain wrong– I agree with you there. Assuming that the purpose of staying home is to help with homework is very limiting. But RG’s point about separating careers from gender is empowering. Some men (not only women) too will find certain jobs extremely hard. It has to do with temperament not gender. Isn’t that empowering?


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