During this difficult time of Corona virus outbreak, how can we as women cope better and support each other? Check our special feed and learn more!

Urban Indian Women: A Scarcity Of Ambition?

Posted: June 19, 2012

Are urban Indian women not ambitious enough or does the system blunt their ambitions? Why is women’s share of the pie so small?

By Sairee Chahal

Ever heard the story of the cats and the monkey? The monkey is distributing a roti to the cats but to make sure each piece is exactly the same size as the other piece, he takes a bite out of it each time, leaving no bread for the cats in the end.

For a second, assume that the bread is the piece of aspiration or ambition and the two cats represent dual (or sometimes multiple) roles for women and let us just say the monkey is Society. The net result is that there is nothing left on the plate.  

Does that mean that the system has failed women? To some extent, yes! Because it has been designed originally by men for a simpler, similar kind of workforce (yes, mostly men with no other real choices).

What is Ambition in women?

Before I go any further, I want to state what is the implied meaning of ambition here – we are not restricting it to the corporate context. It implies anything that one may want to do or achieve, largely in the external context. So for a moment, let us keep aside spiritual, personal or ‘love of the heart’ ambition.

Karl Marx said that individuals make their own history under given and not chosen circumstances. In modern societies, men and women play roles as mirrored or fashioned for them. And it is also true that atleast affluent or middle-class urban women have more choices than men. For women, home has been a traditional priority.

In modern societies, men and women play roles as mirrored or fashioned for them….For women, home has been a traditional priority.

When I got a brief to write this piece, I went back to my team at Fleximoms to ask them – What does Ambition in women mean to them? 

Now these are a group of women at various stages and ages, with very different personality types. One of the points that clearly emerged (reluctantly from some and openly from others) is that ambition is not a dominant emotion or virtue that comes across, as they talk to a cross section of women all over India. Not that women didn’t have goals or aspirations but that they were not as priority as they could be. Something else always took over. Many are not vocal about their own goals or desires.

Ambition is a minimized emotion; something that pops up when all tabs on the browser have made way. In some cases there is almost an apologetic appeal for having an ambition – a sign of approval is a must. Independent Ambition and Fierce Drive are not put up for display so easily.

Why women’s share of the pie is so small

One of the hazards of dual urban lives is that women who already have been conditioned to ‘make time’ for others, do not do that for themselves, implying a quiet burial of their real desires or wants. Not to forget that development of personal professional goals with a long term view of life is rare in women.

This does not mean that women are not doing things – building enterprises, writing books, learning skills, meeting personal goals, chasing the corporate ladder, creating IP, getting involved among others. Of course, they are, and in a growing way. But  that is little compared to the potential and the size of the pie of participants and size of the take away.

Certain trends stand out distinctively.

Leaner choices: World is my oyster might be true for the youth, but for women the choices are self-limiting. Ones that get implied and picked are smaller in range and size.

Lesser control: In decision making, in access to resources, in independence of decision making. Leave out the urban top one percent-ers – but for women in the rest of the country, this is a reality.

Smaller share in the pie: The combined effect of the above – a smaller share in the small pie I asked for.

Noted economist Catherine Hakim’s Preference Theory divides women’s response to work-life choices into three – Home centered, Adaptive, Work centered – where adaptive is the largest group.

In simple terms, men and their relationship with work and life is ossified by money, power, status and backed by a single minded approach. For women, the multiplicity of roles is not addressed by financial institutions or workplaces.

The blunting of female ambition

I also want to briefly touch upon the blunting of female ambition – thanks to urban prosperity. The rising India story made sure there is a percentage of women for whom ‘the hunger is no more’.

It is true ambition when you have the burning desire as well as the wherewithal to chase it. Women are investing in making the decision but what they are failing to do is to invest in the capability. If you wanted to play Grand Slam tennis would you not invest in a world-class coach and a training plan? Similarly, if one wanted to build a world class manufacturing facility, would you not find the best people, raw materials, expertise, technology and the works? Beyond desire, it would need commitment, constant inputs for growth – from the individual and from the system.

It is true ambition when you have the burning desire as well as the wherewithal to chase it.

Closing the Ambition Gap

They say dreaming, like a muscle, requires a workout. In this case, it needs an institutional response to work-life choices made by women. Driving the change at home, bringing men into the work-life to do’s (as opposed to conversation), building institutions driven to accept heterogeneity (I am staying away from the popular term Diversity) and empowering the individual in making independent choices are all needed.

There is also something to be said about how we are defining success. Are we going to keep pushing the ‘male geek super rich’ as a measure of success or are we going to have role models whose choices reflect a balance with respect of social equations? Change in paradigm is a result of what we reward as a group – it trickles down to the individual.

Well, I hope that someone writing this piece 50 years from now has a different story to tell.

About The Author: Sairee Chahal is Co-Founder, Fleximoms. Fleximoms works towards creating, enhancing and co-creating workflex opportunities for women professionals. It also helps organizations harness flexibility as a value driver. Co-founder, SAITA Consulting Pvt. Ltd, a management consulting firm focussed on SMBs, member of the CII Committee on MSMEs, a visiting faculty at IIFT, New Delhi and mother of a 5-year-old, Sairee is your regular Fleximom.

What is Domestic Violence & How to report domestic Violence - घरेलु हिंसा से बचाव (in Hindi)



  1. In a way Sairee has covered all the points. Perhaps it starts with the conditioning right from childhood, not to put one’s desires first. I know there are many reasons for women not to get ahead, but perhaps the biggest one is that until we stop seeing childcare and family as women’s work, “work life balance” will be a women’s issue only.

  2. I have a different view here. While yes, women have been traditionally conditioned to not be ambitious,but I also think its more individualistic than anything else. As the Alchemist says”The world steps aside for that person who knows where she’s going”. So if we know what we want to do, I think the flexibility and support all will fall in place( I am talking from personal experience here.) Also as for the traditional conditioning, I think we as women are also kind of shy to talk of our achievements, therefore not being able to create role models of ourselves, for the younger generation. Like I personally keep looking for older women who had it all and did it all,but apart from a few commonly thrown names (Kiran Mazumdar,Chanda Kocchar, Naina Lal Kidwai) I do not find more uncommon examples. I think thats where places like this,Fleximoms, HEN can bring out more stories of women who may harnessed their latent ambitions.

  3. Very thoughtful article!!An underlying cause of this issue could be “as is where is” approach of a woman and her acceptance towards the surroundings ,society and superiority of the male counterparts in this side of the world.The education system has changed and there are hardly any streams that go beyond a woman’s reach.But why the same girl who scored higher than boys in a competitive exam couldn’t secure higher paying job than her male contemporaries.General Psyche needs to change right from inception that should bring the financial status of a woman into equilibrium irrespective of the multiple phases that a woman undergoes in her career,work and her personal life. Many times,the culprit is the woman herself who chooses to be at receiving end.Life doesn’t end after marriage, kids and beyond.It is a temporary phase and gives a chance to reboot and reinvent ourselves to pursue other horizons.
    Also,how many institutions in India have “NO” age criteria to accept the applications for Undergraduate or PG/ management courses?This AGE driven mentality also limits the aspirations and ambitions of those who want to re-bound or even make a fresh start.
    Way to Go! Fleximoms.Let it spread like fire in the country! Let me know how may I help to make it better!!

  4. Yes, very true. The road a head of Indian women is tough, with a few natural pits and a few more man made bumps and humps.

  5. I find this definition of ambition the real problem. By saying ‘let’s keep the heart out’, a huge part of ambition that really works is cut out. All people who have made it out there enough to be recognized (male and female) have worked on something that incorporated their hearts’ desires into their work…that is what gives someone the ballast required to blast through all the piddly obstacles that society puts in our way.

    Plus, ambition defined the traditional way just gets us to a point that others are unhappy at after achieving. The number of mid-level management types unhappy with their day-to-day attests to this. Sure, leave the spiritual out but passion? The kind of workspace in which passion has no place is one I want no space in! I am spoiled by my home experience and pickier because of it.

  6. Pingback: A Vision For Women Entrepreneurs

  7. Pingback: Urban Indian Women: A Scarcity Of Ambition?

  8. Pingback: A Vision For Women Entrepreneurs

Share your thoughts! [Be civil. No personal attacks. Longer comment policy in our footer!]

Stay updated with our Weekly Newsletter or Daily Summary - or both!