women and ambition

I have recently been reading ‘Lean In’ by Sheryl Sandberg at a really slow pace. Slowly because the book engrossed me it being such a stimulating read. A high-profile, successful American executive opens out her heart and shares her experiences and you realize that at the bottom of it all we are so similar. A woman in America and a woman in India. How our struggles are similar, our social environments and so are our thought processes. So I nod, go back and re-read portions, savouring them and internalizing them. I liked how she shares her initial discomfort with the dreaded F word, feminist,  and then redefines it as a compassionate, warm woman who is not a man-hater who just is asking for equal opportunities and a choice to achieve her ambition that often gets buried under societal and gender expectations and stereotypes.

And then last week, I saw this detergent powder ad that hit home. I often wonder if men actually observe and mull over things in their head, you know routine things. I know women obsess over minor details but men they don’t spend too much time over things. In the ad was a father actually observing, pondering and airing his thoughts out loud. He is not making accusations. He is not hitting out or painting anyone in bad light just thinking of why the status quo has to be in a particular way; why he couldn’t have pitched in a bit more at home when his girl was growing up? As a result, the daughter now tends to do all the household chores apart from a full-time job without asking for any better, without knowing any better. His is not an isolated situation. Look around you, you will see such fathers in your homes. Most men in my dad’s generation did nothing at home, and there are many men even now who expect their wives to manage everything at home! It is not as if they are uncaring or cruel, it is just the way they were brought up, and their wives never asked them or expected them to be any different. Household chores are women’s domains so what if the woman is now having a hectic career of her own?

But, can we afford to continue in this manner? Not really. As women step out and chase careers, men have to pull up their socks and shoulder equal responsibility at home. Our husbands are doing much more, helping with raising children and housework but much more needs to be done. Why? Because else most women will drop out of workforce when they have children. I have been there when I tried to work with a toddler and it exhausted me. As if the guilt of leaving a little baby in the day care wasn’t bad enough trying to juggle work, maid and cooking made me feel like a robot. I wasn’t happy. I was ambitious and wanted to do well in my career too but all the conditioning, my own experience etc. made me choose being around my children when they were babies and toddlers than aggressively working outside the home. Often it is because women may just give up easily instead of negotiating better with their spouses a fair distribution of work. And where the woman lives with her in-laws, it will be very rare that her mother-in-law will let her pursue her career without handling the household chores. No matter how much she earns or how tired she is, she has to head to kitchen at the end  of the day while her husband sprawls out in front of the TV waiting for hot chapatis to be served.

Can we blame the men? Not really. We all are aware how taxing professional work is. 12-14 hours of work and a crazy commute completely finishes you. You don’t want to come home and do anything after that. Not play with kids, not help with any work. Perhaps do something passive like social media or watch television, eat your food and fall into bed. But think of those women who come home and cook, help their children with homework, and plan for the next day. They are tired too but do this because it is their responsibility because no one else will help out. And weekends are also days when there is much more cleaning and organizing to be done which also falls on a woman’s shoulders because that’s the way things have always been. Now with this immense workload, is it any surprise that women choose to drop out of jobs? Not!

Yes, our society does not really nurture ambitious women. Her depiction in books and movies is of an evil woman who neglects home and hearth. As soon as you get married, you may start getting written off for challenging roles in your job because of family responsibilities. There are many such stereotypes that prevent a woman from reaching out and achieving her full professional potential no matter how competent she is. Many of us including yours truly found circuitous routes to grab hold of a career again after giving up what we were trained for and competed fiercely to get qualified for. Yet many other really well-educated women end up leaving the workforce completely. What a sad economic waste this is?

I think it is time we had these conversations about social stereotypes and expectations. A non-working woman implies that the entire financial burden falls on a man’s shoulders giving him less choice to do what he likes. And like the ad said, a man not helping his wife at home, indirectly teaches the children to continue the same behaviour perpetuating this behaviour generation after generation. I hope more mothers involve their sons in household chores because chores are not gender specific. Do not hesitate to do this from the time the kids are young. And like Sheryl says, we also need women to lean in and support women both in the corporate space and at home. Help another woman to achieve her ambition. Enable her to work outside the home. Help her to lead a happy, fulfilled life, not a life struggling to juggle work and home and failing miserably at both or quitting one for the other.

I would like to close with these lines from her book:

“For decades, we have focused on giving women the choice to work inside or outside the home. We have celebrated the fact that women have the right to make this decision, and rightly so. But we have to ask ourselves if we have become so focused on supporting personal choices that we are failing to encourage women to aspire for leadership. It is time to cheer on women and girls who want to sit at the table, seek challenges, and lean in to their careers.”

As we celebrate, International Women’s Day, let’s not forget to be grateful for what we have – our education, our thinking minds, our encouraging families, our skills and our careers. Let us all, men and women, lean in and enable women to achieve much more. Let a woman’s career not be dismissed as a hobby or a secondary priority!

Pic courtesy: khunaspix at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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48 Thoughts on “Women and Ambition: What We Need to Do?

  1. This really connected Rachna. I don’t know whether you intended it or not, were conscious of it or not, but through the entire post, your pained outrage came through strongly.

    Just as men are conditioned not to help with household chores, women too are conditioned not to expect men to help. From childhood little girls see their mothers deal with work inside the house and out.

    Funny thing is, my mother was a working woman who was more than vocal- and conscious) about the unfair ‘double duty’ expectations. My father was expected to help out at home- and he did. In fact I don’t remember my mother getting up in the morning to fix my breakfast/ school lunch box. For years it was my dad who did it and gave bed-tea to my mom after I left for school.

    Even so, it never occurred to me to expect my husband to help me with household chores. And now- for the first time today- I am wondering why. Hmmm…. this needs some serious introspection.

    Thank you dear friend. You enrich me always. And I love the sane, quiet force of your words. Love you!
    Dagny recently posted…Book Review: False CeilingsMy Profile

    • Thank you, Dagny. Your words are so soothing. Nothing more gratifying when what you write hits the mark with a discerning reader and friend. Like you said, the book started an inward journey within me. The part about women not asking, not seeking is baffling and has been covered in the book too. Our minds are such slaves of pre-conceived notions that we’d just not ask or set unnatural targets for ourselves. Why? When will we change? In fact, my mother never asked my dad to help out but I ask my husband and he does! I also believe that there can never be 50-50 in all chores. There is give and take. One chips in for another depending upon individual loads. I think this is an area where we all need to put in active thought. Thanks so much for your lovely comment. It gratified me.

  2. You have put to words the turmoil I have been going through, be it during pregnancy or in the last 10 months post my son’s birth. I have been wondering if this is the end of me…. I took a break from work but I so want to go back now…. Before I conceived, it was all in my hands, the break I took to pursue my interest in writing was my choice. I was happy and content with it but I knew then as well that someday I would go back. But now, that choice is no longer mine, there are too many people around dictating what I should do. I have been in a depressed stator mind all this time.. Fortunately my husband gets it, helps me with all my chores but the hostile environment I find myself in, gets to me. Thanks for this piece, made me less alienated than before

    • So lovely to see you here, Seeta. I am glad that the post spoke to you. I do hope that together you and your husband would figure out a way to ensure that your job aspirations continue to live and breathe. Don’t give up. I am sure you can take up the job again.

  3. This made for a lovely Saturday morning read and on a day when I felt like waking up early just to grab an hour to myself, not worrying about chores or duties or work. Just to focus on myself. The feeling dissipated after the hour was up because I was scrambling around doing laundry, cooking, wondering about the menu for the day ahead. It’s like an endless loop with no reprieve in sight.

    All that said, I have a very supportive husband. He cooks and with delight, he spends tons and tons of time with my child and I can even plan my outings (solo or otherwise) on these days so weekends are techincally easier on me but you’re right. We educate our girls to be smart and ambitious and then withdraw them from the space of healthy competition because the gender roles don’t allow for flexibility for the woman.

    Currently I am in a job that encourages flexibility, working from home and since it is a role I enjoy, I don’t feel the pressure-either from society or myself. And I am happy. But how many women can say that? There needs to be a serious shift in expectations and gender roles.
    Shailaja Vishwanath recently posted…Eventful and memorable- The week that wasMy Profile

    • I am so happy that we have our husbands to watch our backs and help us out. I love working from home in a profile that I enjoy. But that is still a minuscule number. I often wonder what if I had continued in brand management? It is another high to reach the top in your career. Mostly, we give up on those dreams because we have our hands full with work at home, children and family. There are many such issues that hold a woman back. How many men would relocate for their spouse’s job or be fine with handling the home when their wives travels on work for days on end? So yes, a woman’s career only chugs along with adjustments and behind a man’s career.

  4. It is sad that most of my friends’ homes have more or less the same situation,where the mother comes running home after work to get things ready while the father sits idle waiting for the evening tea.

    The same goes at my place. Moms usually avoid bringing it up with the dads to avoid heated arguements and tension in the household. I’ve wondered many times if the situation would ever change.

    But then again there are a few men who do help out at home. So hoping that others would follow suit sooner or later :).
    Dashy recently posted…Dream, Disappear…and Fly !My Profile

    • I think if women handle this subject at the start of their marriage, it would not be a huge deal. Like I said most women will just not ask or demand firmly. Therein lies our failing. Yes, men are doing much more at home but if we want to see our women holding fulfiing careers then there is still a long way to go.

  5. Such clarity of thought and such honesty can only come from Rachna 🙂 I remember you mentioning this book and how you are able to identify with the author. I am sure we all will, at some level from what you have written. I liked the passage you have selected about choices. By giving too much emphasis to that aspect, we are ignoring several others, as she has rightly pointed out. I too am for women being financially independent, to be able to take care of themselves at all times, As for leaning in, would you believe that many women find it beneath their dignity to ask for help? I have seen and experienced this. Unless we learn to demand firmly and with dignity, we will be ignored. Suffice to say that unless a woman learns to stand up for herself, she can’t begin to lean! An apt post for Women’s Day. I am planning to re-post something similar too soon.
    Zephyr recently posted…Old Customs, New Names – 2My Profile

    • Learn to demand firmly with dignity — you nailed it with these words! Why don’t we? So many women I know keep suffering and hoping that the men would read their minds and help out. It is ridiculous. I remember your post on the type of women. And then there are martyrs who want to show the world how important they are and the sacrifices they need to constantly make. 🙂 Men aside women have huge issues with how they handle gender roles too. Look forward to your post. Your validation as always elated me.

  6. ♥ That ad did not give me any a-ha moments, I kept waiting and waiting. I felt bad that it represented a perhaps too generic view of life. I always wonder why, when media has a role in making a difference, they cannot show the good side. I know hundreds of families where both the man and woman work really hard in keeping the house together. Sigh.

    Your post is beautiful. The truth is, most of the time, people just have to be willing, have the intention to make things work because action follows intention. In every family there are things the women find tedious to do – and so do the men. Yet those things get done somehow or other.

    I remember how tough it used to be to go to work with a little one at home – I was so lucky my Mom lived with us, even if we always were a bit on the edge about her health fluctuations. Still, her never-ending cheerfulness made life easier for everyone. There are days even now, when we balk at doing things. Then we laugh – because we know we are only answerable to ourselves. No matter what, we’re pledged to support each other without keeping score. As long as we’re compassionate and loving, everything is good.

    But yes, women need a tremendous amount of support. It is sad to see, even now, how gender discrimination and stereotyping is still rampant. Women must also break out of their shells and live without fear. Even in the most broad minded families, they regress in many things under the name of tradition.

    Great post. Very introspective. And very wise.

    As for myself, I am extremely grateful for my life just the way it is. ♥
    Vidya Sury recently posted…When I’m 60 this is how I want to enjoy my lifeMy Profile

    • I know, Vidya. But I still feel that there is still an overwhelming majority where women do much more as compared to men. I guess this ad spoke to that audience. I completely agree when you say that people have to be willing and that action follows intention. 100%. That is where I feel women have much to answer for. They need to stand up for themselves and demand with dignity. Also your point about not keeping score is what I agree with totally. We each support the other after all that is what family is all about. But this post is aimed at those women whose husbands will not lift a finger at home. That is certainly wrong. Thanks for such an insightful comment, Vids.

  7. You have just made me want to really read this book, Rachna..I found myself nodding so much at most of the things…Ofcourse, I don’t dread the word feminist because my definition is a woman who wants equal opportunities, not favours and also who is no afraid to take what is hers..At the end of the day, I think our ideas are the same only what we choose to call it is something else…
    And yes about men not doing the house work, I completely agree that we cannot blame men entirely..They have seen that and grown up…But I’m also happy to see things are changing…My dad always said you can tell a lot about a family by the way the son helps his wife around home…I also remember about being told by my mil that if you are working who will give water to my son when he comes back from work..So, everything you write here is so very true Rachna…As always ofocurse 🙂
    Nabanita Dhar recently posted…I #PledgeForParity. Do You?My Profile

    • Seeing the virulent feminists all around, it is difficult to call ourselves one without another getting a totally wrong impression. See the difference in reactions of your father and mil. That is why it is so important for women to support other women. Thanks Naba for your support.

  8. You know my stand on the topic, Rachna. I’m super-pro women making their own choices; of course, me being supportive is only one aspect of it. They’re still guilt-tripped by everyone else into making choices that they necessarily don’t want to.
    Oh well! I’m going to try and do everything what I can to support all the women in my life; even friends 🙂
    Sid recently posted…Baking Happiness!My Profile

  9. This book has been on on reading-list for a long time. Still to get to it. I have seen that video. It was shared recently in an old school group. What was interesting that so few people actually voiced their liking for it. That itself goes to show how far the goal is still. As you rightly say, the onus is also on many women to determine roles and decide a fair share. Often times, it is also the women who shoulders a whole lot of responsibilities even if the husband is wiling to help. And guilt trips, yeah, that will take some time to shrug off, for women around the world.
    Asha recently posted…Little TerroristMy Profile

    • True, Asha. Yes, the woman often hesitates to ask for more help. Sometimes she discourages by fault finding. And at other times, she has little say due to societal pressures. Every which way she loses out immensely. Thanks for your precious comment.

  10. And you know what bugs me most… Women who say that they can’t leave their kids with husband because he doesn’t know how to handle them… What kind of utter absurdity is this… That a father doesn’t know what to do with his baby. It’s ridiculous and it’s their moms and wives who further encourage this behavior… The advertisement was beautiful and i loved how calmly he observed and voiced those thoughts… Without any harsh words and profanit. Brilliant write up.
    Rajlakshmi recently posted…Of Makiko, Yoko & Digging NoseMy Profile

  11. Lots to mull over in this post, Rachna. And I agree completely that more conversations need to happen around the issue of changing gender roles and stereotypes. My own experience has been quite different though. My father was very involved in our upbringing, in fact he was quite a hands-on parent helping us get ready for school, packing our school lunches (which my mother would prepare before leaving for her work). I never remembered my mother attending our parent-teacher conferences, it was always my father. He would help us with homework, he was the one looking after many things in the house, which my mother had often no clue about. And thankfully my hubby is the same way. In fact there were some years when I hardly did any cooking, the whole kitchen was his responsibility! But I fully understand that this may not be the experience of many women.

    But your post also made me think of something else. Women in all societies since ages have always worked outside the homes. As domestic servants in other people’s homes, in the fields (family-owned or as hired help in others’ farms), in factories, workshops, in all countries. And these women too have faced the brunt of doing all the household work too, all by themselves, including raising the children, sometimes even single-handedly because of absent fathers. But such experiences aren’t often the concern of most upper-middle-class feminist analysis in most societies. I wonder why. Perhaps because these women were not working because of any ambition, but simply because they HAD to. To survive. So much of our analysis changes when the context of the experience changes, isn’t it so?
    Beloo Mehra recently posted…India, Indology and Deep Colonialism (by Subhodeep Mukhopadhyay -Conclusion)My Profile

    • I totally agree and empathize with those women who have no say in how much they work as they struggle at home. And that has to be a topic for another post. This post, however, was specifically talking about middle class women who have some say in whether they work, are qualified to hold a career and reach the top, but often give it up because of no help at home and of societal expectations and stereotypes. As I look around me, I find highly qualified women giving up active work and some working like robots to somehow juggle work inside and outside of home. Widely prevalent. Often women don’t stand up for each other and some women don’t even ask for help which really baffles!

  12. What a thought provoking article, Rachna. I feel blessed that my husband pitches in – in whatever way he can. Plus the emotional support from him is tremendous.
    Unfortunately, everybody doesn’t have this kind of support. It’s a beautiful thought to have women supporting other women to help them achieve their dreams.

    I’ve been meaning to read ‘Lean In’ for a while now. Your post serves as a beautiful reminder. Thank you.
    Kamini Lakhani recently posted…Can’t keep up? 5 Golden Rules that will help your child with Aspergers’ SyndromeMy Profile

    • Thanks, Kamini. Unfortunately yes! Yes, emotional and moral support are also very important. Sometimes a considerate husband can make you tide over the toughest challenges. I hope you do read the book. It is amazing!

  13. Hi Rachna. The ad you are talking about, really made me sit up too! Very poignant and thought provoking it was! You have brought out the dilemma faced by women all over so wonderfully! Practically all of us face one or the other situation you have mentioned, with little or no choice to accept our lot. The only choice probably as cited being, to work at home or outside it! The older generation still has miles to go in terms of acceptance of a woman’s/daughter-in-law’s responsibilities. Till the time we raise boys and girls as equals, this disparity shall prevail. This article also reminded me of the ad #StartWithBoys which conveys a very important message.
    Kala Ravi recently posted…Who Am I?My Profile

    • Thanks, Kala. For trying to comment twice and for your insightful comment. Absolutely, I agree, we need to raise boys to be more conscious and sensitive to gender parity. We also need to have these discussions with our spouses. Expecting people to read our minds and do what is needed is defeating the purpose.

  14. Ambition is something I never understand; and being single I perforce do everything around the home. Choice, though, and fairness – those I do understand and THAT is where you are coming from.
    C. Suresh recently posted…PicturesMy Profile

    • Oh well, I really am talking about ambition here. Ambition to be a leader, to continue your career, to outperform others and to be a leader. Most women do not have a choice to continue a career as life just gets too hectic with children, home and a full-time job. Society, companies and sometimes family don’t understand her ambition to have a life outside home.

  15. Well presented, Rachna. I completely agree with the core message. I have heard Ted Talk of Sheryl Sandberg. And Amen to your wish. 🙂
    Ravish Mani recently posted…Abhaya by Saiswaroopa IyerMy Profile

  16. My pa has never even lifted his plate after a meal and thus seeing that my brother has always helped Ma and am sure will help his wife too when he marries, these times will change. Very nice post.
    shweta recently posted…I am CurvasexaliciousMy Profile

  17. Rachna, your post had me nodding and agreeing with all the points you’ve mentioned.I am definitely ordering this book, sounds like a winner 🙂
    I am lucky to have a supportive husband who at times, spoils me rotten with his considerate and caring nature. I wish all women have this freedom of choices I enjoy and many like me do too. Happy Women’s day.

    • Thanks, Sulekha. You really should read this book. I have a very supportive husband too. But we need more than that for women to continue having hectic careers after they have kids. We need the whole society to pitch in and understand the importance of this. Happy Women’s Day too.

  18. Till you demand, you will not get anything. Till you say, I expect you to take care of the laundry on weekends and the breakfasts, it will not happen.

    You may face resistance but you have to prevail. I understand it’s an arduous battle. Managing the house, kids is our responsibility and we when he pitches in, he’s helping you out. Thankfully mindsets are changing.

    But you are right, It’s a terrible shame, so many of us are dropping out of the workforce because managing the home and hearth singlehandedly can be so exhausting.
    Purba Ray recently posted…The Reluctant TeacherMy Profile

    • Oh yes, It must be stated firmly. Yet, so many women just continue to slog and give up eventually. Yes, mindsets are changing but considering the statistics of women quitting mid career, we have a very long way to go, not only in India but globally too.

  19. You know what I think about the issue Rachna 🙂 And I completely agree with you, its not only how we are unconsciously setting biased examples, it is also about how so many women don’t question it. Growing up my father never did anything but I still learnt to question it. It is baffling how many women think it is a matter of pride that their husbands are handicapped without them in the house. At my house on a scale of 10, we both work 10/10. Of course our areas are different but work is not defined by our gender. I hope more and more families understand this. You articulated it so well!
    Sfurti recently posted…Share The LoadMy Profile

    • Thanks, Sfurti. I am happy that you questioned it and so did I. But we are very far from 50-50 equality which may enable women to pursue their career ambition. It just becomes so difficult and tiring that women tend to give up. I think companies need to chip in with friendlier policies if they want women to continue contributing. Yes, I do hope more families do understand how home chores are for everyone at home.

  20. Times have changed but there’s more that needs to be done. It’s funny — this subject has been on my mind all day and then at the end of the day I read this. 🙂 It hits home in several places.

    Such a solid piece, Rachna. It makes us all stop and do some thinking.
    And yes — women need to support women, more than anything else.( I’m glad I recently met a group of lovely girls who do just that. :))
    dNambiar recently posted…Monday Mural | Found on Astoria ColumnMy Profile

    • Thanks so much, Divya. How have you been? So long, right? I am so happy for your group of girls. When we look for support, nothing better than a bunch of girlfriends.

  21. I saw that ad and loved it. It’s speaks of change however small. At least a beginning has been made. It really is sad how so many women either give up their careers completely or temper their ambitions after marriage and kids. It will still be ages before we can think of complete parity. Sad.
    Obsessivemom recently posted…Somedays I am a 9-year-oldMy Profile

  22. What you have pointed out in this Article is quite true Rachna, It was never about giving equal rights to men and women.Rather it can be put out like this “1000 or somewhat years ago a guy labeled some jobs to men and rest of it to females and rest of the generation has obediently followed this.And those women who hesitated to follow got the Tagline, Feminist.”
    I guess both men and women should understand the fact there is no such work that is predefined to a particular person.Whether it be cooking, washing, office jobs, teaching your kids or anything.I believe both men and women are capable of doing that.The only matter is to show the willingness to do the same

  23. I have always been meaning to read Lean In. Now I will. When I saw that I ad you are talking about I had a similar reaction. I know one person who even told me that S is hyper because he is a boy. Strange how we demand equal rights and yet these distinctions are so deep rooted in our psyche.
    Jaibala Rao recently posted…The New Age BullyMy Profile

    • You should. I felt the book to be a life changer as in it lead me to an inner journey. You are right. Strange are these stereotypes and then we wonder why they live the stereotypes that we continuously expect them to live.

  24. This reminded me of Jorasonkho, about Rabindranath Tagore who was brought up in a very patriarchial environment where men were treated like Gods and women shouldered all the household chores, and even though his sensitive heart went out to his wife as she struggled to take care of everything and she aged before his eyes, it never occurred to him to help her. Plus, she would probably have died of mortification had he even offered!
    Beautifully written post, Rachna!
    Roshni recently posted…The giant list of typical American Phrases, quotes, and verbiage that you may not know!My Profile

    • Glad that you read it, finally. A post that is really close to my heart and that started so many conversations through messages for me. What you say is so true. Thanks for reading, Rosh.

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