Why women should not give up

DEBATE

Why women should not give up

Former Obama administration official Anne-Marie Slaughter’s famed essay on why women can’t have it all and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s commencement address at Barnard bring into sharp focus the dilemmas that women face day in and day out. Should they stop trying to have it all or should they keep their foot on the gas pedal, asks Savitha Karthik

Princeton Professor and former Director of Policy Planning, US State Dept Anne-Marie Slaughter's recent essay ‘Why Women Can’ t Have it All’ and Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s commencement address telling young women to never give up on their ambitions, have brought the dilemmas that women face every single day, back into sharp focus.

Should women re-prioritise their goals and their ambitions, if they want to have it all? Also, who defines what is having it ‘all’? Do men have it ‘all’? Whose notion of success are we following? If success is defined by the patriarchy, then why should women keep pace? While some of these questions may not have easy answers, what Slaughter’s essay does highlight is the fact that women who indeed want to shine on the workfront, aren’t able to, sometimes.

Was the piece telling young women that it is alright to not aspire for something beyond their current realities? What if a young woman is incredibly talented, but she thinks because “women can’t have it all anyway, why should I even try?” 

Smita Premchander, 53, founder director of an NGO, a visiting professor in a leading management institution in India, and a consultant in the field of development, sees the essay differently. She says, “I think it is important to recognise that one cannot get everything without trying, and trying hard. I don’t think we should not aim to be superwomen. Why not? I have been a superwoman most of my life, at least tried to. I wouldn’t want to be different. It would be a pity to read her article and decide: why should I try?” “I would read her article to see the reality of our struggles as women, and how tired we can get. If we can share these struggles, then we can also try to reduce the pressure on ourselves, strategically, rather than just because of a burn-out. Also, recognising one person’s limitations is key to asking for support,” she explains. 

Support becomes crucial if women want to achieve success on the career front. Points out Smita, “My husband is a great feminist. His inherent belief is that women and men are equal, and must have equal space. He works at home just as I do. He values my career as much as I do. We are proud of one another’s achievements and qualities.” Has it ever occurred to Smita to opt out? “No. I feel tired and overworked sometimes, but that is because I take on too much work. I believe that I gave my children both quality time as well as values and a connection with the larger world, that I would not have been able to give if I were not a career woman.”

Balance & guilt

Says Anu Sriram (44), Co-founder and Joint Managing Director, Integra, “I have been able to balance both family and career because of the support from my family and my husband. In spite of that it has not been easy but a constantly evolving one,” this mother of two children explains. However, Anu adds that though her husband helps her with the children, “It is still my responsibility as is the case with most Indian women.”

It is this constant need to do many things really well that pushes women into a 24-hour guilt cycle. This guilt is a deeply ingrained one, perpetuated over centuries.

Vijayalakshmi, (33), tech editor, says, “The ‘can’t have it all’ plays all the time, as a mother, as sister, wife, daughter... women are trained to give and compromise even when they have other intentions deep down. To make things better and to make the woman in the family a go-getter, it requires plenty of broad-mindedness from the others to start with.”

Gautam Ghosh, Platform Evangelist, BraveNewTalent brings new perspective to the whole ‘having it all’ debate. “Having it ‘all’ is an individual and contextual thing. For some of my MBA batchmates it has meant opting out of the workforce for a couple of years and then doing their own entrepreneurial business. For others it meant bringing up their kids single-handedly in the absence of a joint family. For a minority it meant getting maids and cooks so that they can go back to a corporate life,” he says. He also adds that there seems to be a stigma attached to “educated women who choose to be full time mothers too. That has to go. On the other hand there is an assumed guilt by women who do not opt to be full-time mothers. That has to go too. “Mothering” is not a gender exclusive role...even men should do it!”

Question of choice

Whether to join the workforce or not, when to opt out, choosing how to map your career, balancing, re-prioritising are all the privilege of a lucky percentage of women, women who have a choice in the first place. Like Slaughter points out in her essay, “Millions of other working women face much more difficult life circumstances...Many of these women are worrying not about having it all, but rather about holding on to what they do have.” It is important to address the problems that these women face. Smita Premchander explains, “My work relates to empowerment of women, poor women in particular. They are denied equal education opportunities. They get married too early.

In Bangladesh, rural girls get married by 15, the story in rural India is not much better. We need to keep them home longer. We need to teach both women and men how to delay first pregnancies, so that girls deliver babies only after 21, and not before. The fact is, society today does not provide an equal space to women. We need to demand that space. Not only women, men: fathers, brothers, husbands, colleagues, must join to create that space for women. Men must lead a feminist movement as well. That is necessary for substantial change.”

Change also comes from keeping “your foot on the gas pedal”, as Sheryl Sandberg put it, in her inspiring speech. Commenting on the issue in the The Atlantic, Debora Spar, president of Barnard College, where Sandberg spoke said, “Sandberg wasn’t telling our students to be passionate, or to find themselves, or to learn to work with others...She was telling them to be ambitious. To push hard. To feel power and enjoy it. These are sentiments that young women rarely hear today, buffeted as they so often are by measured advice on juggling, balancing, and seeking some ephemeral all.”


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