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A world to convince: why a woman can't have it all

Women who manage boardrooms are still expected to keep an eye on what’s for dinner, whether the linen has been changed and whether the children have completed homework, writes Barkha Dutt.

columns Updated: Jul 05, 2014 15:33 IST

Every woman who has battled societal prejudice, peer pressure, male insecurity and internal conflict in pursuit of her professional ambition knows exactly what PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi meant when she proclaimed with disarming candour that “women can’t have it all ”.

To begin with, biological determinism obstructs or at the very least controls free will for many of us. As a fresh-eyed feminist who was not yet 20, I remember irate but simplistic college debates on motherhood and careers and why women were expected to prioritise one over the other.

Growing up as the daughter of a working mother — one who belonged to a generation of trailblazer women journalists who initially had to fight just to get mainstream reporting assignments — I naively believed that talent, rebellion and grit were enough to “have it all”.

The truth, I would discover, is way more complex. Women pay a price for professional success that men never have to. Not only are we assessed by a different barometer (women have to be better than their male colleagues to achieve the same recognition), we are scrutinised by a harsher gaze, judged much more easily and treated with suspicion if we are not married or mothers at the ‘right’ age.

It’s equally true, as Nooyi argued, that the biological clock is in “total and complete conflict” with the career clock. Chasing a professional goal with single-minded focus — which is often the requirement of any job — can sometimes mean that you postpone personal decisions like parenthood until it’s too late or you simply don’t feel mentally ready for it, even if the option presents itself earlier.

A fellow journalist who was writing an essay on women who don’t have children once asked me whether I had never wanted to be a parent. I told her — and I suspect this happens to many women — that by the time I felt ready for it, I was probably biologically too old.

There were also looming concerns in my head. As a mother, could you afford to be a vagabond journalist who likes spending long stretches out in the boondocks? Could you still get up and go to report from Libya or Egypt or on the latest conflagration that had captured your imagination with a young life dependent on you back home? Of course, the same questions should apply just as much to men. But they don’t.

None of this is to script a victimhood narrative. In the end, all of us make our own choices and then try and live a life making the best of them. But the debate triggered by Nooyi’s comments is two-fold: Does biology itself militate against a truly free choice for women? Or does it — profoundly unfair as it is — limit and define our choices in a way that it never does for men.

The second, more compelling question is whether women — even those who are brilliant trapeze artistes at multi-tasking and juggling — are expected to DO it all, even if they can’t have it all.

Nooyi’s own account has a telling anecdote of a conversation between her mother and her wherein she is commanded to go out and get milk for the household on a night when she returns late and has exciting news of her own promotion to share.

But for her mother, the PepsiCo CEO’s primary responsibility remains that of wife, mother, daughter and daughter-in-law. In the everyday work-lives of women this is an argument many a daughter would have had with her mother or mother-in-law.

At one level, with the rise of women in almost every profession, it would appear as if the glass ceiling has been smashed. But it’s still only cracked, not broken.

Women who manage boardrooms and billion-dollar deals are still expected to keep an eye on what’s for dinner, whether the linen has been changed, what vegetables are in stock and whether the children have completed their homework.

While an increasing number of fair-minded and enlightened men have made home-keeping a partnership, for the most part managing the home — whether they work or not — is still treated as a female domain.

In some ways by chasing and even embracing the label of ‘super-women’ and ‘super-moms’ we have done this to ourselves.

Instead of romanticising the female ability for managing multiple roles, we should be negotiating for a more equal playing field — at work, and at home. We should be pushing for paternity-leave benefits at the workplace and flexi-hours for men and not just women.

Instead of demanding daycare and crèches for the children of female employees, we should ask for it as a benefit for all employees.

If the work-life balance is skewed, that should be as much of a problem for men as it ends up being for women.

Till men partner women equally in the rearing of children and the managing of the home — or till the choice of who does more of the household stuff is determined not by gender but by the specific demands of either job (for instance, a man may be a soldier stationed at the border, a woman may be a school teacher with more flexibility, but the situation could be exactly the reverse as well) we are continuing to stereotype the expectations that are made of women. It’s equally problematic when professional women glorify certain skills as quintessentially female.

It’s become reasonably common to hear that women make for more compassionate bosses or are better at shaping consensus in the workplace and so on. One cannot want the essentialism of being female smashed at home but reiterated at work.

Sometimes it is our own internal contradictions and confusions that end up confirming the clichés that persist about being a woman at the workplace.

(Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV. The views expressed by the author are personal.)

First Published: Jul 04, 2014 22:15 IST