She joined the long list of women who quit their jobs not because they can’t do it, or do not like to do it, but simply because their households do not make the alignments needed to keep her in the work force. She was tired balancing both work and the responsibilities at home. If managing the kitchen and the house, taking care of the many guests and the family, and playing the role of the wife and daughter-in-law were the priorities of her household, she decided that struggling to keep her job was pointless. I thought she gave up too soon. In this day and age this is unacceptable, I argued. She told me she had tried, but could not take the physical and mental stress any longer.
It is tiring to hear these stories even in these so-called modern times. In the generation of my mother and mother-in-law, women hardly went to work. Even when they did, it was the economic necessity that drove them to work. They chose what they saw as safe career options, working in schools, hospitals, banks and government organizations. They remained unwilling to seek career progression, fearing longer working hours, transfers, and lesser flexibility to take leave. They managed home and work, seeking the help of parents and relatives, and struggling to make it work, but they could not give up their jobs as the household needed the money.
Women of my generation did better. We could pursue a career, choosing jobs we enjoyed doing. We could negotiate better for ourselves, engaging help where needed and using our financial independence to make decisions that mattered to us. Though many of us were expected to also play our roles in the household, we could ask the men in our lives to step up, and we could seek concessions as needed. There were tough days at work and at home, but we managed alright. The next generation we assumed will do even better. These women knew they were equals with men, most of them demanding that they wouldn’t take on more responsibilities at home. The men and the families obliged in many cases. But many still treat the woman and her career very differently. No one ever asks a man how he would manage his work after being married or after having a child. These questions are reserved for the woman.
It is my view that women must participate in the world outside their homes. We make up half the population, and we must be involved in the major decisions that the world makes, as it affects our lives and the lives of our children. If more and more women choose to remain at home and not participate in the community around them or enhance their circle of influence to make an impact on the larger world, we will remain poorer for that choice. The unethical practices we have in the food industry, the chemicals and junk we ingest in everything from grains and fruits, to packed food and prepared food, might have been avoided if women made those decisions, I like to think. Women would not have chosen profits over the well-being of those that eat the food, I presume. I would even think that we wouldn’t have global warming and climate change stare at us so harshly, if women were in positions of power that made decisions for the world.
Perhaps I romanticise. But it is my belief that women bring an important complementarity to decisions. Many think of the working woman as the one who wears the pants; some even expect her to behave like a man. But that misses the point. Within the household and in the outside world, the woman brings a different approach, a different angle to problem solving, and a different set of skills to addressing issues. We cannot afford to miss that; we need women participating in the world around us.
The responsibilities of the household should not hold a woman back from pursuing economic independence as she desires. Even for that micro level liberty, being employed is a choice a woman should be able to make without reservations. We remain a society that imposes on the woman additional burdens and responsibilities, even if she shared the economic burden of the household. Even for the most accomplished and determined woman, giving birth to a child is a natural setback in her career path. So many are torn between the needs of the child and the compulsions of their job and choose to take a break from work. Even if we argue that this break is a necessity, many other impediments to the pursuit of a career prevail because we remain unfair to a woman’s role at home and outside.
I recall how easily I would be interrupted at work with calls and questions from home, while the husband would be treated with greater deference. Even in a work from home scenario, I know of many friends who tell me how their job is taken lightly and they are expected to make time to feed the family, attend to the children, entertain the guests, and keep the home. Members of the family fail to take the working woman seriously, they rue.
It takes an entire family to enable a woman to get to work and remain free to pursue a career. Everyone needs to come on board to acknowledge that she should go to work, if that is what she likes to do, and support her. We don’t need role definition, we need seamlessness. Every adult should learn to be in-charge of their needs for food, cleanliness, and their own tasks. And they should willingly and seamlessly be able to do all the tasks in the household and for the family. That this needs to be told in this modern age is a shame, but we still run homes in which no one knows to cook or clean. We don’t believe seriously enough that the world belongs to the woman too, not yet.
(The writer is Chairperson, Centre for Investment Education and Learning)