Indian (Wo)men at (Wo)rk……#LeanIn to #MakeItHappen

Hmmmm……this certainly takes the cake on the “most difficult topic” I have written about. There are so many players involved and despite all my efforts, I will end up using some of my own life experiences to highlight something and that might (will) end up hurting people inadvertently. But since it is an issue that is close to my heart, I am diving into this headfirst with a disclaimer:

இந்த படைப்பில் வரும் கதாபாத்திரங்கள், பெயர்கள் யாவும் கற்பனையே, யாரையும் குறிப்பிடுவன அல்ல    

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious 🙂 Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Also, this post draws from my own experiences and observations of my Indian female counterparts.

Last week I was browsing through a tamil magazine and came upon the “questions to the editor”column. A reader had asked this question:

கேள்வி: ஒரு பெண்ணிற்கு எது மிக உயர்வானது – மனைவியாக இருப்பதா அல்லது தாயாக இருப்பதா ?

(Question: According to a woman – is being a wife worthy or being a mom?

ஆசிரியர் பதில்: ஒரு ஆணை நாம் எப்போதுமே முதலில் ஆணாக தான் பார்க்கிறோம். அப்படி இருக்க ஏன் ஒரு பெண்ணை மட்டும் ஒரு தாயாகவோ அல்லது மனைவியாகவோ மட்டும் பார்க்கிறோம். இந்த பார்வை மாற வேண்டும். ஒரு பெண்ணை பெண்ணாக பாருங்கள்!

(Editor’s Answer: We see a man as ONLY a man. Then why do we view women as either a mother or a wife. This has to change. View a woman as a woman and not as a role)

What an apt and a valid response!

Imagine how many men (in the context of friends) we would have met in the last 8 hours or so – how did we think of them – did we think of them as Arun, Aravind, Abby, Ani, Yogi, Hari or did we think of them as so-and-so’s husband/boyfriend/partner or so-and-so’s dad? Now flip the other side of the coin – think about the women (again friends) we met in the last 24 hours – how did we view them? Did we view them as Rekha, Deepa, Maria, Silja, Reba, Vidya or did we look at them as so-and-so’s wife or so-and-so’s mom? I know that you know that I know the answer to this question 🙂 While this might seem funny at the outset, that’s all that the Indian society is willing to see us as – as someone’s someone – it can be anything – wife, mother, DIL, daughter, sister, SIL etc etc. It’s as if we(men) do not exist outside of these roles and our success is only measured by the way she handles these roles.

From a time a girl is born, she is the குடும்ப குத்துவிளக்கு, her family’s pride is dependent upon her behavior, (diametrically opposite to the ‘boys will be boys’ claim) and she has to embody a balance of both modern and traditional behavior, i.e. she has to score good grades, in fact more than the boys while learning and performing household chores (that boys are typically exempt from). Very few households engage children of both sexes in chores (Mine was one such house). She can go to a co-educational school but should limit her conversations with boys to only studies. She can dress up in jeans and tops but also has to be comfortable in a saree. She can focus on her career but has to settle down (meaning get married) before she gets (and looks) old. Old is a relative term – some parents consider 20 to be too old. Most importantly, she is given all the freedom in choosing this “perfect life partner” from the 2-3 choices (READ: Photographs) that is deemed apt by her family. Her mistakes reflect badly on her family which will in turn impact her marriage prospects or will end her getting scolded by her in-laws.

Some typical conversations (mostly one-sided) along these lines:

Scene 1– At Home

Parents – Kanna, we are looking for a suitable match for you. 

Girl: But, but, what about my dreams, my aims?

Parents, in a firmer tone – See you are already old (she was just 22), if you get married at 24, imagine when will you have kids. Plus women look old faster……….அதுஅது நடக்கற வயசில நடந்தா தான் நல்லது (meaning things should happen at the right age). Who is stopping you from working or studying –  you get married first and then you can get study, work, have a career. We will not stop you but being a wife and starting a family is more important than a career. I got married when I was 21 and had both my kids by the time I was 24. 

Scene 2 – @meetings with prospective grooms, their parents – several times over and over again and again….and again…..and again

Q: Do you know singing, why don’t you sing a song? 

(Mental monologue, sometimes not): I can sing but i won’t (or) starts singing “ஊதா கலர் ரிப்பன் உனக்கு யாரு அப்பன் ” ((The person with a purple ribbon, who is ur dad and who is your mom – tell me so that I can salute them both 😀 ) – just to irritate the hell out of the boy and his folks or something similarly sarcastic 😛

Q: What are your plans after getting married? Can you cook different cuisines, my mom cooks really well? Can you make round chapattis? 

My plans are (1)my plans and (2) to not get married now and (3) they definitely do not include you, about that cooking….err… you, I also worked very hard in architecture school and that’s why I came in the Top 3.I know how to make a circle with a compass and cooking was not a part of my curriculum in school.  Why don’t you just hire a cook if all you want is to eat? 

DRUMROLL, please for the grand SLAMMER

we don’t believe in taking dowry (but you will have to give diamond earrings to your daughter, and other X,Y,Z things) if this alliance goes through

Let’s  call a spade a spade,  but if this isn’t dowry, I am the Queen of Utopia

A boy’s mom actually asked me in front of everyone if I liked her son just 5 minutes after I met him.

I politely (i.e. as politely as I can) conveyed that it is better for my parents to discuss about the same as her son is going to tell her (and not me) if he liked me or not. 

She said that I am an ARROGANT GIRL (of course if it was a guy, oh, he is so humble and respectful towards his parents)

After marriage, whether she choses to work outside the home or not, she is still expected (without any ramp up time) to run the house i.e. cook, clean, attend to her family round the clock. And if for some reason she chooses to not work, she is introduced as “My wife so and so, she is just a housewife, sitting at home, doing nothing.” I have heard a lot of my friends say this about themselves and every time I list everything that they do around the house, they shrug it off and say that it is their duty.


Now, let’s bring in the perspective of our fellow working women. In the WhatsApp group of Class of 2000, there was this woman who constantly kept putting down other women as they were not, according to her, working or doing meaningful work. She actually said and I quote this, “working outside and managing teams is very difficult, of course I don’t expect you to understand, you are just a housewife.” And of course, there is another school of thought, where working women are chided and ridiculed for going out of their house when their primary duty is taking care of their house… “Oh I don’t know how you can work, I simply cannot neglecting my home and children.” These kind of comments also touch on having a life outside of their family – including night outs, meeting friends, traveling for work etc.

Uh…..are you actually telling me that I am not worth something or can’t understand stuff cos I do chose not to work outside my house or that I am neglecting my home and kids just cos I choose to work outside of my home/ meet my friends for drinks/ travel alone for some well-earned me time/ volunteer or simply engaging in something to preserve my sanity. What’s up with this attitude? I mean if women from the same generation look down on other women’s choices about their work and life, how can we expect women from an older generation – moms, MILs, and your well-meaning neighborhood aunt to understand this? And how can we expect men to understand our perspective?

So is a man really looking for  – what is his perspective?

From Breathing Space in A Marriage

He wants a modern yet traditional wife, someone who is well educated, can hold intelligent discussions about politics and “World Peace.” These supposedly modern men like their partner to be professionally qualified (not just any degree will do), don’t mind them working (mind being the key word, as if someone gave them the right), but is in reality looking for someone subservient, someone to take care of him (as if he is a baby), his house, his parents, his kids, whip up delicious meals, just short of fetching his paper, pipe and slippers 😦 See it’s all HIS and not THEIRs. And breathing space….what breathing space?

We had invited this person home for lunch when we were still in the US. He was working in a huge corporate in India. He actually told that he doesn’t prefer hiring women as employers have to be careful about their work timings, ensure their safety when they work late. Then these women get married, get pregnant and have to be given leave. I just ripped him apart. Why? Cos I was hired by a wonderful firm when I was…….8 months pregnant and being pregnant didn’t affect me, my work and my employer in any way. But this guy, it was like talking to a rock. The videoclip below is from a movie “Kanda Naal Mudhal.” One of the characters is trying to irritate the female lead by telling her how useless he thinks women are at the workplace. Though this scene was meant to bring about  a couple of laughs, it is actually the reality in most Indian workplaces.

When we moved back to India and I started working, the kind of  unnecessary comments I would hear made me cringe. For about 18 months or so, G and I worked in the same org and I used to leave home early so that I can be back home in a reasonable time (READ: before homework and dinner). Every time G used to drop off my lunch at my desk, I would hear some unnecessary comment from my manager at that time. At one time, a male co-worker and I both injured our backs at almost the same time. He gave the male co-worker time off immediately as according to him he is a primary caretaker, breadwinner of the family and needs to get rest to get back to his noble duties. Whereas, I had to finish my assignments for an event before going out on leave. If I colored/ cut my hair or dressed in western wear (i.e. skirts), this specimen who was the manager’s pet used to mention casually that “Ï am lucky as G allows it.” He even had an acronym for someone like me – DING – dual income group, that too with years of experience in the US, am just working for time pass. Only when I mentioned inappropriate and the dreaded H word, did the manager ask him to keep quiet as I obviously cannot “take a joke.” He was a typical Indian male employer with the mindset that the woman (and her pay) is only secondary to that of a man and her place is at home.  He could not handle someone who was both a pre-baby Miranda and a Charlotte. Most men want a a contented mom and homemaker like Charlotte or a pre-baby Miranda if they want to move ahead in their career.  God forbid if a woman tries to to be both.

I see well-educated, ambitious women with their eyes and hearts full of dreams being forced quit their jobs, to stay back home by their husbands, cos “how can the children be left in a, GASP….daycare. It is very important to have a full time parental presence.” If parental presence is the only requirement, why can’t the husband stay back? I mean, he is also a parent. The woman is then forced to quit her job and she ends up being dissatisfied and resentful.  Or when these men want to move elsewhere either for his career growth or his commitments or after his retirement, they just expect the wife to pack up and move. No consideration whatsoever about how it impacts these women, their lives, the friendships they have formed over the years and most importantly, their career. It’s like they are invisible and their efforts are not even acknowledged. Then these men go into their workplace and then pretend to work towards GENDER EQUALITY in THE WORKPLACE (!!!).

Men have always seen the women in their house as a role-player, mom, sister, grandmom, as someone who was comfortable being in a subservient role but never as a person. Very few realize the difficulties the womenfolk from their families had to undergo. Even if their mom was working outside their house, they still were the primary caregiver without anyone to lean in. They still had to serve coffee to their husband who came home tired from work (when she would have just entered the house as well) and immediately start cooking dinner.

A Working Indian Mother
A Working Indian Mother

Very few women like my mum, for instance, had someone to lean in. My dad would not expect her to make coffee or anything. In fact, as he always reached home early, he would make not only coffee but also start prep for dinner. And if my mom’s schedule is very hectic, he would just finish dinner and keep food for her in the hot pack. He never expected her or asked her to be the parental presence at home when he went out foraging for food 🙂 no caveman attitude there. He took on that role, the parent who got the kids ready for school, who drops and picks them up, who attended PTMs and so on. He also never got frazzled if he had to be alone with us. He stepped back (and didn’t have any regrets) so that my mom can advance in her career. Their’s was a partnership in the truest sense. But he was the exception and not the rule.

As for me, I have always had G to lean in/ focus on my career cos he pitches at home. I even lean in on my kids. But every single time someone meets us both and come to know that I am working, they always, always ask me (and never Guru) how I manage work-life balance. Even if they ask Guru, it is how I manage my home and work or that how great a person he is that he can handle things at home when his wife is traveling or taking time off for herself 🙂 We both juggle multiple things and both of us step back/forward as the need arises. And of course there were some times where I had to step back monumentally (it was, at least for me), with major moves, even though I took with step back my eyes-wide-open with no coercions. G is aware and respects me for this decision as he was able to attend to his priorities then. We still play the step back-forward game (I call this game, cos then it makes it fun) and while it’s not without difficulties, we are able to do it cos I have him to lean in and he has me to lean in. I also know of other couples who lean in to each other and while this is not a big percentage, it is still a positive indicator of things to come.

But leaning in is not only about men and women, it is also about other fellow women. As I mentioned earlier, if women cannot understand and allow other women to lean in, how can we expect a man to do the same? Let’s look at this conversation between 2 women, several times during the course of the day or when they have an opportunity to meet.

Snippets from several conversations between 2 women (not verbatim) :

Person 1: I just wish that a woman didn’t have to always step back in her career due to family responsibilities and expectations. 

Person 2: See career and all is important but everything comes secondary in front of family. Family, i.e. husband and kids are a woman’s world and should be her only focus and that is the societal norm as well

Person 1: My family is very important to me but for me my identity as a person i.e. who I am, what I do outside these roles, as my own person, including being a meaningful professional is equally important. Both these need to be in balance for me. And we forget that we are the society not some random person named society.

Person 2:  You are not lacking anything in life – you have a wonderful husband, lovely kids, you own a home, your husband makes good money and you also have a job. This “being your own person” is all just for show. 

Person 1: (Baffled) Okay, let’s agree to disagree.

End of Conversation.

Person 2 in this conversation was and is still a very successful career woman, who fought against inequalities and stood successfully in a predominantly male dominated field. But she still thinks that a woman’s role as a wife and mother should come first. Not that there is anything wrong in her viewpoint but she is unable to accept Person 1’s point of view and also thinks that it is wrong to think like that. Is this cos of stereotyping women into roles or traditions, whether they make sense or not.

There are very few workplaces in India that can call themselves Gender – Friendly and I am really lucky to be working in one of them while having someone to lean in. Several others are apparently working towards such initiatives as is evidenced by the articles in the newspaper about workplace initiatives and committees working towards gender equality.But as I mentioned earlier, in these people are not from an alien planet but from our homes, our gender-unfriendly/unequal homes. If they don’t believe in gender-equality in their own homes, how are they expected to bring about this change in their workplaces? Cos bringing about change involves empathy and a basic effort to understand the co-worker’s needs and struggles. Without these qualities, this  initiative would then be a hogwash and a mere tick in your checklist.

It’s not enough to send out an email a year to friends and family about international women’s day and then objectify them continuously. It’s not enough to just have workplace initiatives. It’s not enough to just lament about the lack of women in mid-level and high-level roles and the female brain drain. It’s not just enough to blame the organizations cos they are run by people from our homes. Let’s start leaning in and be a change agent to bring everyone, everyone from your families to this discussion, so that we not only have gender-friendly workplaces but also gender-friendly homes and countries! A gender-friendly home makes a gender-friendly workplace 🙂

“The more women help one another, the more we help ourselves. Acting like a coalition truly does produce results.
Any coalition of support must also include men, many of whom care about gender inequality as much as women do.”
Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead

Featured image from:



  1. The way you conclude this post is exactly what I have been thinking for a long time too. Women just always complain about gender inequality, but acts in ways that put themselves below men. Blame husbands for not able to achieve what they want and says, its all a sacrifice for the family. Anyone who says otherwise is called a feminist, in the all the wrong sense of the word. Nicely penned.

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