Women making hard choices

Being a professional woman is all about making choices. Really hard choices. Choices that are gut wrenching. When I was in b-school, there were tons of talks about being a woman in the corporate world – the choices, the tradeoffs, the support systems. I didn’t go to any of them. Not one. I was a member of the Women’s Student Association, but that was for the great exam prepnotes they provided! (which was also the reason many men were members of the WSA).

I didn’t go to any of them because in my youthful naivety, I was convinced that men and women are treated equally and all you had to do is perform to be rewarded. Forget all the special treatment for women – I don’t need it. I don’t want it. I want to be measured by the same yardstick as my male counterparts. Period.

My early career validating that thought process. After a year in the wilderness of consulting, I settled into the technology world in California. I loved it. I was measured by my output. I was motivated to work for hours on end. Sixty hour weeks? Pah, that’s nothing. It was all consuming – constant adrenaline, constant craziness, meetings, product reviews, launches. I didn’t go to a doctor for years. I didn’t go to a dentist until it was a crisis. There was just no time. Ninety hour weeks? Bring it on.

And honestly, I loved it. And I patted myself on the back for not wasting time in school attending speeches where people would have taught me about the tough choices women make.

And then, it slowly started to change. The big 3-0 was looming large. The pressure to get married appeared. Got married. To someone who lived 3000 miles away in NYC. Now what? The WSA and all the speakers I spurned laughed in my face, that’s what.

My buddy, Tough Choices, appeared and would not leave. Commuting 3000 miles was no fun. Turning down opportunities in California was seriously no fun. Bringing that angst into the relationship was absolutely no fun. After several years of moving between coasts, of tear filled ruminations on priorities, of turning down offers to relocate globally, of fearing being branded as not being that interested in work, I was more than ready to admit that yes, women do have it harder.

I am not saying that they have it harder at work itself. I don’t think they are judged any more or less harshly than men. It is the added responsibilities outside work that make it hard. Being a good wife, of making sure there’s food in the fridge (when I was single, I could just eat cereal if I wanted!), investing in a relationship, living on the same coast to ensure that you have a shot at a family one day. Usually, the woman picks up those things in a relationship.

It was very hard. AND it was very hard with a supremely supportive husband (who never suggested I quit and adjusted around my crazy schedule) and a fabulously supportive company that allowed me to work from NY for large chunks of time. A company where bosses flexed for me and the CEO shared the tough choices she had to make.

After three years of wearing myself ragged, I finally sat down and prioritized what was important in my life. When trying to make a decision, I take it to the extreme – so there is only black and white, no gray. I had two options… What if I was CEO of a large successful company (assuming I could get there), but had no family and no kids. Would that be okay? Absolutely not. What if I could never, ever be the CEO of a large successful company, but I had a family and kids. Well… yes, that would be fine. Not ideal but fine. And definitely better than option one. I had my answer on what I valued more, if I absolutely had to choose.

To me, Indra Nooyi and Meg Whitman are women who actually have it all. But the reality is that they didn’t have it all at the same time. They had to prioritize. They had their kids, potentially putting their careers on hold, and then they charged ahead. I can’t imagine how much effort doing both took — I am in awe of their energy and drive and passion.

But there have to have been tradeoffs. Painful tradeoffs we don’t see. Tradeoffs that kept them in the industries they love, in roles that were moving ever upward. It is a strong woman who can make those tradeoffs in a way that works for everyone involved. These ladies have my respect – not only for their professional accomplishments, but also for the very hard personal challenges they’ve wrestled with.

My soul searching led to a redefinition of what’s important to me and clarified how I wanted to prioritize my life. It also led me rediscover my passion for the creative side of things and film – an entirely new direction. One that will hopefully let me accomplish my professional goals and my personal goals.

And I’ve come to believe this:

Women can have it all. They just can’t have it all at the same time.

Let’s hope it is true!

If you are interested, here’s a link to an interview with Indra Nooyi. She’s a great role model, and I am (very pleasantly) stunned with the honesty of her responses. The personal section starts here.

Link to Indra’s interview via Nilu.

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  • Veena

    Totally understand the part about investing in a relationship, living in the same coast etc. but here are a couple of things I don’t get:
    1) What exactly is “being a good wife”?
    2) And making sure there’s food in the fridge? And why is that one person’s responsibility alone? And more importantly, why can’t I eat cereal if I am not single?

    Yes, it is hard to have it all. For anyone. But if things at work are more or less the same for men and women and its the outside responsibilities that make it harder for the women, then IF the spouse is “supremely supportive”, its not any more harder for the woman that it is for the man right? Or am I missing something?

  • Shripriya

    Hi Veena
    1) It is the self-imposed constraints you put yourself, your own mental definition. It is also the expectations that come from the relationship. Each partner probably has mental expectations on what they want from the other. Yes, a somewhat loaded term, but…
    2) Sure you eat cereal. I was using “food in the fridge” as a euphemism for the house not falling apart. I guess a lot of people read that literally.

    I think supremely supportive is a personal definition too and there are so many ways people can be supportive. To me, R was supremely supportive in lots of ways. But R also never does groceries – so we could either starve, order in all the time or I could do it (and here, groceries are again a euphemism for the stuff around the house). Does that mean he’s not supportive? To me, no, it doesn’t. He was totally fine with eating out all the time and never made me do anything – I guess we go back to #1, where it is self-imposed in a way…

    It is hard justifying very personal definitions of what’s supportive (or what’s loving). How we each define it will differ.

    I’d love to say hi to the man who intellectually challenges his wife, supports her passions, makes her laugh, takes care of her when she is down and does an equal share around the house πŸ™‚ But the one I have checks enough of those boxes in a way that I feel is super-supportive…

    And finally, while we aren’t there yet, I know in my life that I will be the primary care giver of any kids we have. For most women I know, that is the case (although I do know of couple of instances where the guy is a stay at home dad). Given that is true for most women, that’s unequal, even if the women choose that option…

    Thanks for the Qs – love the discussion.

  • Veena

    Shripriya,

    Thanks for your reply. And since you love the discussion, hope you won’t mind me taking more of your comment space. πŸ™‚

    1) Yes. But why is “being a good wife” more difficult that “being a good husband”? If they were the same, then obviously, as per your post, it wouldn’t be more difficult for the woman than it is for the man to have it all, right?

    2) No, I actually did not take it literally. I just don’t understand why the house would fall apart if the woman wasn’t running around to make sure it didn’t. Or what is wrong with the house not being so perfect because both people are busy doing other things that obviously enjoy.

    So anyway, I see your point about constraints and expectations being self-imposed, and the choices you have to make personally. But what I find problematic really is tying your personal choices to women in general having to make harder choices.
    If we impose all these constraints (I will make sure the house is in order, I will do the groceries, I will cook, I will be the primary care giver etc.) on ourselves, then seriously we have no business complaining that it is harder for us women. I mean, who is making it harder? It is one thing to say that society(the man in the house and I being part of it) expects women to do all these things and so given that we have to do it, it is harder for us (I pretty much am with all the womens’ groups on this one) but it is something else altogether to say that I, who actually has a choice in this matter, choose to do these things myself and so it is difficult for me. In the second case, it is no longer a gender issue, it is an individual problem.

    Of course, there’s this whole, big issue of things at work should be flexible for whoever the primary care giver person is (and workplace discrimination in general) but thats a totally different issue from the one here, so won’t go into that.

  • Shripriya

    Veena, no worries. And to clarify – I love the discussion because it makes you think about things you hadn’t, makes you pause and say “hmm, that’s interesting” and maybe even question long-held beliefs. So, fire away πŸ™‚

    Fair point. I think it is a combination. Saying it is just me or just “them” (society) is a cop out.

    First, a caveat – our house could be a lot cleaner than it is, but I just put boundaries on what I can do. So, in no way am I saying I’m a paragon of achievement. πŸ˜‰

    Now, that said, let me address the combination. You are completely right in that if I impose the choices on myself, I am the one making it harder. But the reality is that in my mind it is a mixture. Why do I impose those constraints on myself? Partly, growing up, you see this being the role of the woman. Partly, when it is a raging mess because we both have intense jobs, “society”/visitors certainly do raise an eyebrow in my direction. Partly because when it gets messy R will make a statement of fact that the place is a pigsty with the unstated expectation that I’ll do something about it (unfortunately yet to fully happen). So, there are subtle pressures from all around.

    The thing I want to shy away from is just blaming others… because in reality I could just tell everyone to go take a flying leap, right? And I don’t. So, yes, it is society, it is R, it is the familial forces that be, it is all of those things. But it is also personal choice to let all of those things matter, right?

    When you say “It is one thing to say that society(the man in the house and I being part of it) expects women to do all these things and so given that we have to do it, it is harder for us (I pretty much am with all the womens’ groups on this one)”, to me that’s equally a cop out – expectations and your need to fulfill those expectations are two different things. Blaming society and your husband is just too easy. I just choose to accept responsibility that I am the one who chooses to take on those expectations? Why? Because I live in society.

    In the Indra Nooyi interview, there’s this section where her mother says to her “look, when you pull into the garage, leave the crown there. Don’t walk in with it, because you are first a wife and a mother. And if the family needs milk, you go get the milk. That is your primary role in life.”

    That’s societal/familial pressure – if you choose to agree, is that then self-imposed or…?

    To me saying, it is society or it is R is a cop out. So, I say, it is me. Because I could choose not to live in this definition of society and I could choose not to live with R. But I like the former and love the latter πŸ™‚ So, I do. And so I say, it is my choice. There are probably semantic differences in our definitions of choice. I don’t think having these expectations makes R less than supremely-supportive. People are packages and I find my package very supportive.

    Anyway, my guess is that these are the types of tradeoff and rationalizations a lot of women make. Talking to peers and those who’ve lived it already, it certainly seems to the be the case.

  • How about a comment from the man himself?

  • Shripriya,

    Ok, so I am jobless today πŸ™‚

    Of course blaming society is a cop-out, more so for those of us who can afford to tell society to go to hell. And I should have explained instead of being dense and mentioning offhand that “the man in the house and I being part of it” that yes, by society, I mean the subtle influences over time that make us the people we are, and not someone (in total saas-bahu serial style!) raising eyebrows at the mess that is the house. So I agree there. Totally. But the point remains that when someone makes these (self-imposed) choices(the key here is that these are real choices), it cannot be a gender issue. As I said, I understand your choices and they are hard choices to make; I just do not think your choices are harder because you are a woman. If they are, its only because you give in to conditioning (if you want to put it that way).

    And ya ya, R is super supportive. I agree, okay? πŸ™‚ He brings in money if nothing else, doesn’t he? Can’t say that much for the person in my flat.

  • Shripriya

    @ Confused – HAHA. The man think we bloggers have way too much time on our hands. He’d likely fall out of his chair if he saw I posted these pretty personal decisions up here. Can’t wait πŸ™‚

    @ Veena – clearly I am jobless too. “Given in to conditioning”. I like that. I think that’s at least somewhat accurate. Most of us do. And the conditioning is not that different in India vs. the US, but it is changing everywhere. Food for thought.

    πŸ™‚ I have to support him. Otherwise he’ll sulk when he reads my blog!!

    Btw, I like the Tate Modern images…

  • A very interesting article indeed. Being in a relationship across such vast distances is ofcourse very very difficult (ofcourse marriage ads more pressure). Trying to manage something like this myself.

    Anyways, really like ur conclusion, “Women can have it all. They just can’t have it all at the same time.” but I think it applies to supportive men as well πŸ˜‰

  • Shripriya

    Shubham – yes, I agree with you πŸ™‚

  • Weatherwane

    right. still reading through the lot of comments. but such empathy I feel – what with having come into this myself, not too long ago.

    Will be back to read soon.

    Good luck and Have fun on the way.

  • Brilliant post Shri. Loved the flow. Would just refer your post to my friends now when they ask me on Saturday nights, “But is THIS life?”.

  • n!

    Shripriya: I don’t know if you’ve read this amazing book by Rhona Mahony called “Kidding Ourselves”. Her argument is that women will never achieve true equality in the workplace as long as there is sexual division of labor at home. Which is not a new idea but she makes her case very clear and further, is the (more objective, kinder) precursor of Linda Hirshman when she says that women put themselves in a weaker bargaining position much before they even get married or have kids.

    Her solution? Train yourself up and marry down i.e. marry someone who has less of a high pressure job than you have. (yes, yes, I know the LH made pretty much the same recommendations).

    Do read the book fi you haven’t already.

    Coming back to having it all, I guess its harder to manage if (a) both the man and woman have a high pressure inflexible job (b) there are kids involved, although I think it might be manageable. I actually think (b) puts more of a constraint than (a).

    Coming back to your particular example, i agree with Veena. I think its more your choice than a generalization that women cannot have it all. If you really think about it, you needn’t have relocated, you needn’t buy the milk (or its metaphorical equivalent) and you certainly needn’t feel the need to spend valuable time cleaning the house when you could spend the time at the forefront of the business, law , medical, political (insert other profession) world here.

    One last thing if it makes you happier: there’s lots of research in psychology that shows we completely mispredict happiness. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you this, you being from Harvard, but Dan Gilbert is the guy for this. Anyway, he cites research to show that people with kids are no happier than those without. My favorite current thought and something a lot of people (especially women) would do well to remember!

    sorry for the long comment.

    n!

  • shripriya,
    very nicely written. I am afraid, though (and you perhaps mention this somewhere in your comments) that a lot has to do with our conditioning. In a way, by “succumbing” (for lack of a better word) to making the choices, we are never going to be able to dissociate women from having to primarily bear (partly self-imposed, partly innate but also partly socially-imposed) domestic responsibilities.

  • samira

    The thing is if I you have a highly conservative family (which is sometimes the case in India), or if you feel you need to put up a “front” or need to strive for society’s approval (when you say the society and R frowns down upon an untidy house), then you’ve lost the game.
    In this world of changing equilibrium, we (women) shouldn’t have to feel guilty when the house is untidy or there isn’t milk in the refrigerator. If my mom (as in the interview with Indra Nooyi), had said Leave your crown at the door and go buy the family some milk, I wouldn’t be surprised because that was how she and her generation of women were brought up. But its our responsibility, being the generation that has brought women’s lib to the forefront, by not talking about but actually doing things better than men. I’m sure the same mother is equally surprised when her daughter succeeds in a thus-far male-driven organization.
    We should be the ones telling our mothers, yes, I will bring the milk this time, but no that isn’t my primary responsibility at home. Next time, my husband will bring the milk. And thats the changing world. It is us who feel guilty that there isnt milk in the refrigerator. And when a husband doesn’t complain if there are no groceries, then we shouldn’t complain that we have to get the groceries every time.

  • Shripriya

    @ Weatherwane – Thanks and good luck with your own adjustment process.

    @ Prakriti – Thanks πŸ™‚

    @ n! – First off, thanks for the tips on the reads. Will do. Also, I do think the Dan Gilbert stuff is very interesting. Especially given that most of my age group is in a panic over fertility (ah, so much there for a follow up post! πŸ™‚ )

    The issue that I think we should all accept is this —
    Yes, it was my choice. BUT (and this is critical), it is *also* the choice of over 90% percent of women I know (and probably 90% of all women). So, it is all of their individual choices too. And therefore, it leads to a generalization. I am not saying that it is right, I am just saying that this is the world I see today. More on this at the end, after I address TGFI and Samira πŸ™‚

    Oh and on the marrying “down” thing – I can see that. Btw, most men in high pressure jobs also want to marry “down”. I had a startlingly honest conversation with a b-school classmate who told me that he wanted to marry “down” because he had enough stress in his work life and when he came home, he just wanted to chill. He felt that my peers and I were much more demanding of an “equal” relationship and brought a lot of career angst to the relationship that he didn’t want to deal with. Yes, it took me aback, but it is also true, yes?

    @ TGFI – Yes, totally agree on the conditioning. But I would be loathe to state that is just desi conditioning. I actually think it is global conditioning. Women friends who are American (white, Asian American, African American etc.), Asian, European, all feel the same pressures.

    @ Samira – Totally agree with you. Totally. I think the thing is that it is a slow change. And the battles that need to be fought are very personal and each woman needs to decide how much to push. But women are pushing slowly and so, slowly things will change.

    So to the ladies who so kindly shared their time and their thoughts — the reason for my generalization is that a vast majority of women I see are making choices where they accept primary responsibility (not being defensive, just thinking out loud). Almost a 100% do so after kids, but a big % before kids too.

    Why? Well, as we all agree a big chunk is condition, which just becomes so ingrained. But I also think women are pushing at the envelope in ways that makes sense for them. For me, one small example was three years of commuting where I just did it because I loved my job and I wasn’t ready (at that time) to give it up. [FYI, R couldn’t move for various reasons that made sense to both of us]In a prior generation, that would have been crazy. R was supportive, but my parents certainly wanted me to stop after a short while. Why? Because “Aren’t kids a priority? How will you ever have a family if you keep doing this?” And the reality is that at some point, I agreed with them – I mean, how does one have kids in that situation? Sure I could have a kid, and commute with her or leave her behind, but is that the life I wanted? I felt I pushed on some things and accepted “conditioning” on some things. Other women are pushing the envelope in ways that make sense for them – having guys pitch in more, delaying childbirth etc.

    I know women who are single in their early to mid thirties. In many of these cases, they say they will uproot themselves when they find someone worthy of marriage. Why? Because it’s been hard to find someone and they’d rather be with someone in 30 years than alone, and if the guy is settled and doesn’t want to/can’t move then they’d rather move than remain single. Is that right or wrong? Neither – it is their choice.

    But when most women are making choices where they acquiesce, it becomes a generalization.

    Today, I still see women making the tough choices. But, I agree with Samira that the equilibrium is shifting. And it is shifting with the baby steps (no pun intended!) that each woman takes in her own life. None of us can fight all the battles and just push to complete equality in one step I think, because men too are conditioned and society is conditioned. So, as each of us pushes a little, our generation will change a lot.

    Btw, please don’t apologize for long comments. This is a complicated topic and this is a great discussion πŸ™‚

  • Hi Shipriya and thanks for inviting me to the eBay Blogs public wiki. I hope to be able one day to blog as openly and personally as you are doing here. Cheers.

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