Mar 08, 2017

Career Success Versus Social Identity – A Woman’s Dilemma

Sumita Datta

Men take charge and women take care of the family is a social messaging that starts from an early age in Indian societies. When asked ‘What comes to your mind when you think of the term ‘woman,’ I have heard the majority of men respond by saying ‘mother, wife, sister, daughter…’ It is not surprising therefore that the answer to the question, ‘What is my role as a family member’ becomes an integral part of a woman’s core identity. It is a powerful predictor of behaviour, as a woman often shifts her behaviour to play out the role that gives more favourable self evaluation. A characteristic very distinctively seen in a collectivist society like India is that irrespective of qualifications and professional background, marriage, child rearing and elder care take precedence over career identity and career advancement for women. Very often women opt for career breaks even when they have access to child-care and family support. ‘My professional success has no meaning if my children don’t do well in their studies’ is a rationale cited quite often by women for opting out of their jobs. Severe guilt when faced with the family versus career conundrum, often forces a woman to make a trade-off in favour of time with family.

The decision to opt out of employment is not a simple one. Driven by the economic liberalisation in India there is a quiet revolution of sorts brewing in gender relations at work and family relations at home.

‘It’s important for me to have financial independence. I don’t like asking for money from my husband for having the quality of life I want’ is a quintessential sentiment that reflects the economic aspirations of the urban Indian middle class. While financial independence of women might be perceived as a license to transgress the lakshman-rekha of a stereo-typical feminine role, the additional family income is also welcome. This paradoxical truth defines the chasm between two sets of expectations – career success versus social identity of a woman.

‘I like being a mother and I like working. Can I have it all…’ For a woman who succumbs to the conflicting demands and buys time with family at the cost of her career, the bigger setback comes when she wants to return to work. In a fast moving world, keeping pace with the changes in technologies, addition of skill sets, do become difficult and this leads to dwindling self-confidence, which further hampers her re-integration. Often, companies see returning women as less credible career aspirants. Thus a career break may break a career forever.

Getting more women to participate in all levels of management is an economic imperative that is driving many progressive organisations to adopt equitable practices for gender diversity. However a bigger question that still remains is how do we bring about equity in the social roles that we play as men and women in the family system. How can we as a society imbibe more equitable practices for our social progress? Such non-linear development calls for action on multiple fronts including policy level changes, early education, executive education, corporate practices and media. Only when simultaneous efforts are taken will they build on each other to create deep shifts in societal mind-sets for developing more inclusive organisations and equitable societies. With the Post Graduate Management Programme for Women (MPW) at SPJIMR, we have taken a small yet significant step towards that vision.

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