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The Joys And Risks Of An Unconventional Career

Posted: April 16, 2013

Many Indian women are exploring unconventional career options; but is it always a good thing to do?

By Unmana Datta

When I was a child, my parents took it for granted that both my sister and I would have jobs when we grew up, if not careers. They would make casual references to “When you’re grown up and earn your own money” so I always believed that I would earn my own money. It wasn’t a choice.

That said, my mother was a housewife, so I knew not all Indian women had jobs. But having a job and being financially independent, even having a career I was good at, was portrayed as a desirable thing.

From what I hear (not having seen this up close), boys in India are told they need to grow up and earn to support their families.

So for one gender, a job equals independence, success, accomplishment; for the other, duty and convention.

Of course, I’m oversimplifying, and it’s not nearly so black-and-white. But I wondered, does that childish attitude translate to your attitude towards work when you grow up? Especially when you’re married and your husband is earning, as most Indian women are?

Unconventional career options: Easier for women?

I asked Aparna, the Editor of Women’s Web, what she felt about this. She agreed, saying, “I could afford to take a risk, since we are a dual earning household, so one person brings in the bread, and we do without the butter for a while.

Look at this recent survey of women entrepreneurs. An overwhelming majority are married – 78%. 64% have children, which perhaps makes working from home or making your own schedule seem more appealing. (Not that women entrepreneurs can always afford to do both or either.)

I think of women I know who are freelancers, entrepreneurs, social workers, artists. And while they’re all amazing and I’m glad they do the work they love, for many of them having a partner with a stable income made it easy to take the risk.

…are Indian women in general more likely to seek fulfillment in their jobs than men?

Of course, I also know enough male entrepreneurs to know that if you really want to work on something, you take the leap. But are Indian women in general more likely to seek fulfillment in their jobs than men?

The same survey demonstrates this. 25% women entrepreneurs claimed that they were motivated towards entrepreneurship to gain “a sense of self-achievement.” Add this to other “soft” reasons like freedom and passion, and you get 66%. Monetary benefits moved only 5%.

Similarly, in the recent Women’s Web survey on the career aspirations of young women in India, only 33% said they would prefer a high pressure-high rewards work environment.

Can unconventional career options backfire?

The rewards of seeking your own path are obvious: the joy of doing work you love, the freedom of being your own boss, the deep satisfaction from building something your customers will value. But are the risks worth it?

The most obvious risk is financial. An unconventional career is less likely to yield a stable income, at least at the beginning. A friend who freelances with not-for-profit organizations pointed out that a husband’s income isn’t absolute. I agree; disability, divorce, death, or unemployment can suddenly reduce or eliminate the income. Even unconventional careers should make you capable of paying the bills (in a few years, if not right now).

Another risk is failure. What if your business fails, or you can’t find enough freelance work, or you realize you’re not cut out for social work?

But at least you’ve learned something, about the industry or about yourself. Such experiences are never a waste of time, in my opinion. And you’ll reduce the risk if you do your research beforehand and give your decision enough time and thought.

By opting out of the system, are you eliminating the chance of changing it? If women allow themselves to be pushed off the conventional career path, are we making change less likely, making it more difficult for other women?

Or are we changing the system anyway, by building alternatives to traditional, sexist work environments? Successful women entrepreneurs and freelancers demonstrate that there are other ways. Women business heads can set up more fair practices and have better workplaces. These would be bigger, better changes, in my opinion, than trying to change sexist policies or habits ingrained in conservative workplaces (and changes on the outside will then influence these as well).

The traditional workplace – large organizations, usually with men at leading positions – is aligned with the patriarchal system. We need change both from within and without. New ways of working and new career avenues can help shift the balance of power.

Whether in conventional careers or otherwise, what I’d like to see is more successful and powerful women. And I have to believe we’re moving towards that goal.

*Photo credit: haydnseek (Used under the Creative Commons Attribution License.)

Unmana is interested in gender, literature and relationships, and writes about everything she's interested

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  1. great article! While everyone is entitled to their own opinion based on their convenience and choice, I feel freelancing can be an option apart from their main job. I feel both, a 9-5 job and freelance work can be at risk so while having both, it secures the women’s financial status eventually. At least, that’s what I plan to do. Freelance definitely gives flexibility in time

  2. I do agree with Jasveena. More over freelancing can be enjoyable if writing is ones passion.

  3. Very nice and contemporary article. Having gone through a face of freelancing and home based I completely agree with Aparna that it was possible because at least one of us had conventional job. Also that freelancing or SOHOs are possible for only some sectors of business (writing, programming etc.). If your passion is research and development in a manufacturing unit then there is no way that you can opt out and work alone in the corner of your bedroom. Also after 13 years of trying out different sectors of work and in different ways, I feel that a woman’s career path (at least for us and next 2 generations) will be different than a man. We will be lucky to pick and choose home based full time, home based freelancing/consultancy, or full time jobs depending on our personal needs and goals. We started with 9-5 job options but then realised that jobs are spilled all over our lives now a days, so we are trying waters through other options. And this will have impact in the generations of women to come for sure.

  4. “If your passion is research and development in a manufacturing unit then there is no way that you can opt out and work alone in the corner of your bedroom.” Very true: some unconventional jobs are much easier to try out than others! Thanks for the thoughtful comment, but I disagree that entrepreneurship is impossible unless one partner’s earning, though I agree it’s definitely much more difficult.

  5. Nice article just happened to stumble over it while I was searching for freelance career options. Freelancing is definitely a great choice for women. It gives them more freedom to choose what they do and when to do it. One of the options available in India is Theworkster.com it provides a freelancing platform for women and students. This is a free website with no commisions or fees.

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