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!