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Some 24X7 Careers Aren’t Flexible, Making These Difficult For Women. Here’s How We Navigate Them

Posted: October 4, 2019

Men have to partner in parenting as well if they want happy marriages with happy, fulfilled women. This cannot happen overnight – it needs concerted efforts by governments, by societies, by companies/ organizations and by families.

You don’t need experts to tell you that as women we can be quite hard on ourselves. But of course, there are people who’ve spent a lifetime analysing this. Like the former president of Barnard College, Debora Spar, who believes that as women have reached for power, they have gotten themselves stuck in an impossible quest for perfection. In Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, she asks for honesty from working women on the work-life balance.

The point Spar makes is that if you’re talking about running anything, whether it be a bank, a hospital, a television station or a university, these are not forty-hour, flexible work-week jobs. If you’re running an organization, it’s a 24×7 job.

That doesn’t mean women can’t do those jobs. But it means that the women who do those jobs, or aspire to those jobs, have to either not have children, or have partners who pick up the burden of the child-care, or have parents or in-laws who are very deeply involved in the rearing of the child. Or they need to manage to have their children very early in life and then move into those jobs. Women can do them, but we need to be honest. There are certain kinds of jobs that will never be part-time, flex-time or easily manageable.

It’s good to be honest, especially while talking to young women and young men. If they really are committed to having an active, enjoyable professional career, and a working spouse and a couple of children, there are some professions, or some fields within professions, that will give them that flexibility.

As Spar says, “I don’t see that as stepping back, leaning out, opting out or whatever verb you want to use. I see it as just being practical.” She was ready to go into the foreign services, until she realized it would make it difficult to have a family and a husband. She went into academia instead, which has given her a lot of flexibility and a lot of control over her own productivity.

But not everyone has that foresight. Most of us just stumble along until we find ourselves in our forties, struggling with teenage children, ageing parents and husbands with equally busy schedules. Or no husbands at all – either by accident or design. That’s also when most of us are at the peak of our professional careers and discover that we really, really do like what we do.

That’s what I found liberating when I watched the otherwise painfully self-congratulatory TED Talk by superstar TV producer Shonda Rhimes (accompanied by the obligatory celebrity memoir The Year of Yes). The fact that she was willing to put out there this convention-defying confession: “I like working more than being at home.” And that she felt great because she set aside fifteen minutes a day to play with her three girls (to be fair, fifteen minutes in the life of a woman who runs at least three world-conquering weekly soaps simultaneously is a lot of time).

Hearing ourselves saying what Rhimes said aloud, to ourselves or otherwise, can be therapeutic sometimes. As we negotiate the tricky details of our lives juggling between career, relationships, community service and me-time, the calendar year perspective allows us to change the order in which we rank the four. We have to let go of the guilt if at times the career comes before the relationships (which could possibly include the children) or if me-time takes precedence over time with our mothers. For far too long, our culture has made being a good mother the only ideal for a woman, whereas men have got away with choosing what they want to aspire to be – a good child, a good worker, a good spouse, or a good parent. It’s time for women to have those choices as well, and perhaps not all at the same time.

If my mother’s generation was keen to see their daughters in the workforce and worked systematically towards that, our generation’s responsibility should be to ensure that we change the terms of engagement. And that we talk of work-life balance for men as much as for women. So that men understand that they cannot expect their wives to keep perfect homes, raise perfect babies, and have perfect bodies in absentia and on an allowance. That they have to partner in parenting as well if they want happy marriages with happy, fulfilled women.

This cannot happen overnight – it needs concerted efforts by governments, by societies, by companies/organizations and by families. Having it all shouldn’t come at the price of doing it all, all the time. If women have traditionally stepped back from their careers, like Sudha Murty, men should be trained to do so too. And at all levels. Otherwise, as British feminist Laurie Penny puts it, while we all worry about the glass ceiling, there are millions of women standing in the basement and the basement is flooding.

And when the basement is flooding you know who stays home? Yes, it’s the woman. When the child is sick and has to be picked up early from school, who does it? It’s the woman again. And of course, when the cook has gone AWOL and there is no fresh food to eat, who has to come home early? Yes, you guessed it, it’s the woman again.

Do we all have to end up like Kate Reddy, Allison Pearson’s fictional character, in I Don’t Know How She Does It: The Working Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother? There she is at 1.37 a.m. on an average night, just having returned from a business trip to Sweden, banging store-bought mince pies with a rolling pin so that they’ll look homemade for her daughter’s school Christmas party. This, so that the other mothers whom she calls ‘Mother Superiors’ don’t diss her. “She then goes out to the trash bins to hide the pie boxes so that Paula, her nanny, won’t tell the other nannies that Kate cheated on the pies. She cleans up the kitchen and then takes a long time brushing her teeth so that her husband will fall asleep before she comes to bed (if they don’t have sex, she can skip a shower in the morning and possibly have time for Christmas shopping on the way to work).”

Apart from the dodgy hygiene, that’s been pretty much many nights for me, only the pies have been replaced by homework that became increasingly complicated, often including full-scale professional engineering skills. I would (yes, I admit it) pay a professional holiday-homework bureau (yes, they exist) to make these models (often they would be a battery-charged windmill or a toy of recyclable material). I would then unmake them just so they looked like they were made by my seven-year-old genius child. It didn’t help anyone. Said child didn’t become a genius and the projects were binned as soon as they were marked.

The point is we don’t want to end up like Kate, almost losing her husband, having to give up her demanding job, and retire to the country to rebuild her life and finally learn to bake the pies. There is the hint that she will eventually find some meaningful work, but it is clear that her days of wanting to be the English equivalent of the Wolf-of-Wall-Street banker are over. She describes her decision to give up work as the equivalent of “becoming a missing person. One of the Domestic Disappeared. The post offices of Britain should be full of Wanted posters for women who lost themselves in their children and were never seen again.” And no one wants their faces on that poster, please.

A young woman I most admire, Lavanya Nalli, vice chairman of the ninety-year-old Nalli Silks, with over thirty stores in India and abroad, is a great example of someone who has shown the persistence to stay on course. Her father was initially quite ambivalent about Nalli joining the business, but she remained firm, launching Nalli Next, a brand of designer saris for contemporary women in 2007, which helped the brand remain relevant to a younger audience. She took off from the family business in 2009, getting an MBA from Harvard, marrying a classmate, Abhay Kothari, and worked for McKinsey and Co. in Chicago for three years. When she returned to India with her husband in 2014, she worked at Myntra.com as vice president for revenue and shopping experience, coming back to the family fold only in 2015 as vice chairman, heading the e-commerce and Omnichannel platform. Since then, she’s had a baby, moved to Bangalore in 2017, and seen her husband set up his own business, an integrated cold supply chain solution. How does she manage, especially since both her parents and in-laws live in different cities?

Here are Nalli’s mantras:

  1. Focus on work-life harmony, not balance. I think work-life balance is a misnomer, I try to strive for work-life harmony. This is how I’ve seen my own family members in the family business achieve joy and meaning out of their hectic lives; they put a lot of passion, energy and time into their work and in turn the fruits of their labour is highly motivating and rejuvenating, and they in turn bring that energy into their personal lives. They are more present, and are involved parents and family members.
  2. Manage your energy, not time. My child is seventeen-months old. After the child, I have much less time to get many things done. I try to get an hour to myself to work on my personal fitness goals, and the rest of the time is dedicated to work, and luckily I have a very supportive husband who understands how important it is for me to have a fulfilling career.
  3. List your priorities and then see if you spend the hours in a week proportional to the activities and priorities listed out.
  4. Take out at least an hour a day for yourself. It could be on fitness, or reading a book or meditating, but ensure you do one thing that replenishes you. Currently, my day is very hectic because a couple of the business units that I manage have experienced exponential growth, and now we are trying to hire the right talent at multiple levels. I guess work occupies a significant chunk of the day, but I always try to take out an hour at least for my personal fitness every day, and every week I spend Sundays with family and friends, and try to keep that time sacred.
  5. Understand that in the short run sometimes you might need to prioritize one aspect of your life over another depending on where the need is more critical.

You see flashes of the same advice in the response of Deepa Kaul, my cousin and CIO of Indian IT consultancy firm SopraSteria. Mother of twin daughters, who are now twenty-seven, she’s seen many young women engineers quit because of children, husbands, or in-laws.

Kaul’s advice to younger women:

  1. Hang on, as this is a phase of life; don’t live the later phases regretting the decision you take now.
  2. You can quit your job but you can’t quit being a mother – being a mother redefines and rebuilds you; so let your professional life be a part of the rebuild and redefinition.
  3. Seek out mentors and, in turn, support others professionally and personally.
  4. It will work out eventually. If need be, rough it out for some time.

Kaul’s been working for thirty-three years, non-stop, having been in ISRO and ONGC as well, with the longest break being her maternity leave. “I did contemplate quitting when my daughters were preparing for their boards but with support of my manager, I was able to have a time arrangement which worked well for the organization and me,” she says. Today, she’s glad she stayed the course.

Excerpt published with permission from Kaveree Bamzai’s No Regrets: The Guilt-Free Woman’s Guide to a Good Life, published by HarperCollinsIndia

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Image source: a still from the movie Aamhi Doghi

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