Women Without Choices

Anuradha Das Mathur, the founding Dean of Vedica Scholars, gently responded to me,

"What gets in women's way is exactly this choice of quitting out of a career. We want to convince women that they don't and shouldn't have such a choice. That will make a difference."

It was the evening after discussing all the ways in which women experience inequality in the corporate high power world. The "objective" pointed out that in some ways women benefit from this inequality. They may have more choices of changing careers or switching out of a high-pressure job because of not being expected to be the sole bread winner. If they have a supportive husband, in today's modern world, women are the ones who decide how much they want to nurture their children and how much time and energy they want to spend in their career. The statement above was Anuradha's soft-spoken response to me.

Anuradha's statement stuck with me. It was the orientation week for Vedica Scholars, the first Women only MBA program about to embark its first year in New Delhi with a mission to prepare women with the potential to achieve fulfilling success. The program's governing council consisted of impressive women leaders from all over the world. I was there to present my workshop on Mindfulness Meditations and Innovative Thinking. I had listened to women leaders from different areas presenting their own experience on women in high careers and what they did to survive and thrive in men's world. It was very inspiring, however, frustrating to see that playing field wasn't leveled.

But at the end of the day, I had to acknowledge my own "privilege" of having a supportive husband and having the choice of changing my career from Ph.D. in Management Information Systems from UCLA to a Psychotherapist in private practice who used Mindfulness Meditations as a psychological tool for well-being, before it became so popular. I had to acknowledge my gratitude that I could spend time and money on developing my meditation App 2meditate without worrying about creating income. Could I have taken time off to pursue my "passion" if I were a man? Could I have practiced psychotherapy only as much as I wanted because of wanting to spend time raising my children? Do I not know so many women, professional with impressive degrees, who were able to scale back or completely quit their high-paying careers after kids started growing up, because they had the "privilege" of having capable husbands?

On this background, Anuradha's words stuck with me. What if I did not have my choices ever? Not even a choice of having a choice? What if women did not feel the need to find a man in their life to marry and who can be a good provider? What if women knew that their partner (or someone like that) was going to take care of their children with the similar care and investment as themselves? What if we had mechanisms such as a trained governess(er) system or a different family system in which men and women had the same un-stigmatized training in being nurturing? What if knowing that the children were very well taken care of in their absence relieved women of the need to be with the kids beyond the first few postpartum hormonal weeks? What if women were not going to feel the guilt about "neglecting" their family? What if a woman being assertive was not scorned as being "bossy" and selfish? What if a bossy woman was not scorned as not being nurturing? In fact, what if a "bossy" man was just as disliked as a "bossy" woman? What if so many women in high-level careers did not have to make the choice of quitting on their marriage if they chose to be fully engaged in their careers?

Just recently, Sheryl Sandberg's non-profit organization LeanIn.org released the report of its survey of 30,000 workers. According to the report, the reason why only 17 percent leadership positions are held by women in spite of almost half of workforce in North America is women, is not the "Mommy" issue anymore. Now, both men and women feel equally strained by the work and family balance.The report also says that women don't opt out of work any more than men. Both men and women are almost equally likely to quit a job. The report claims that the culprit for gender inequality at work is the cultural belief about women being incompetent.

This may be so.

But is the Mommy issue and having the Choice-to-scale-back issue (willing or unwilling) really not there anymore? Answer the following questions honestly to yourself, based on what you see around you, not just how you think it should be.

  1. How many women do you know who have scaled back from a high-pressure career versus how many men you know who have done that, irrespective of if they feel the strain of work-family balance? Include young and old. For young, include what seems possible in the near future.
  2. If you are a mother, are you raising your son to have nurturing qualities? If your son decides to scale back on his career because of family, would you applaud him?
  3. If a close relative woman of yours chooses to keep working, do you pardon her for her inability to attend to family needs, taking care of the house, or even entertaining guests?
  4. If you are a woman who has scaled back because of family, would you want to go back to work if a really trustworthy system for child care and child rearing is in place? If not, honestly speaking, is it societal pressure, fear of reentering the workforce, or just the sheer joy of spending time with your kids?

Answers to these questions will tell you why I doubt the implications of this report.

Last week during the event hosted by Wall Street Journal, female CEO of Pepsico, Indra Nooyi, said she was surprised to see her own children were willing to sacrifice career ambition for family because they grew up with a mom who was never there. When LeanIn.org survey says Mommy issue does not exist anymore, it is talking about both men and women feeling the strain of work-family balance. This does not mean the Mommy issue is not an issue anymore. All it means is that we have moved away from the "Mad Men" days of explicit and accepted gender discrimination. If at all, it questions the claims that "nature" is to blame for women wanting to be the ones taking care of the children, gatherer as opposed to being the hunter. The human conditioning has made a difference in our attitudes within just a few decades, but we still have a long way to go. Juxtapose the results of LeanIn.org report with the Pew Research Center 2013 survey results says that although the percentage has gone down in last few decades, women are predominantly likely to experience career interruptions because of family needs as opposed to men.

So this is what I say: We are far from ending the mommy issue and the choice-to-quit issue. If the results of surveys in North America show that women experience career interruptions a lot more than men, in spite of a sea of attitude change in North America, think about the rest of the world where the expectations from the gender roles are still lagging behind. The Mommy issue is no more that women's brains are wired to be the nurturer, it is the "guilt" because of not having proper systems in place, including the expectations. The playing fields will be equal when men and women are "groomed" equally, to be what they want to be -- hunter or gatherer. Let us admit that it hasn't happened yet! We still have a huge bias towards grooming women primarily to have beautiful bodies for attracting a hunter males followed by being good mothers and grooming men primarily not to be soft and gentle. We still either stigmatize a woman for being a stay home Mom or glorify her for sacrificing her career for taking care of children. We still do not want boys to cry or to be home makers. The unconscious or conscious bias exists that being a mother is woman's ultimate responsibility.

Think about a society in which such gender-neutral grooming is a norm and systems are built for that. I say we need to build trustworthy systems to relieve the "parents" of the job of creating good, successful, and responsible children. Then all other reasons for inequality - cultural bias towards female incompetence, resistance towards the female boss, the difference in brain wiring, and insufficient pipeline for qualified women - will be neutralized. I say let us start with this: no more gender specific choices about work-family balance. It is time to brainstorm how to create a "Child Grooming" system.