I have been working for the past ten years now. Few years in the Philippines, but the major part has been spent in India. Three years ago, when I decided to take the entrepreneurial plunge, I had not only officially said goodbye to corporate stints but also to the world of freelance assignments. However, what has stayed with me till today is my saying goodbye to my married life. The world keeps reminding me of my broken marriage and finds ways to tell me to be sorry about it, labelling me as “incomplete”.
When did it first hit me?
At any social gathering, the first question that we generally ask is what a person does professionally. Basically, trying to understand where the bread and butter (and all the alcohol, cigarettes, fancy clothes, outings) is coming from. As usual, this question gets thrown at me as well.
I am successful in what I do. While I keep working to achieve greater success, I am happy to look back and see the progress I have made. I started a legal education startup which is working towards making law accessible to the common people of this country. I am also working on the issue of gender justice at workplace. We have made tremendous progress in the area of implementing the anti-sexual harassment law in the last one year with a unique cloud-based solution. I have been directly involved in training more than 10,000 employees of top Indian brands to create gender sensitive and supportive workplaces.
In 2015, I earned a green belt in Kyokushin karate and am aiming for a brown belt by the end of this year. I am also actively involved in cat rescue, and foster home and adoption initiatives. My passion for writing and singing is now seeing me working seriously on a song writing project. Plus, I get to travel quite frequently for my work, which is something I have always wanted to do.
When I start talking about some of these things, eyebrows often start defying gravity at the other end. Then we arrive at the junction where they want to know why I am not married yet. All the appreciation gets tossed out of the window once I mention my divorce.
Suddenly, everything makes sense for the other person. I am no longer a phenomena, I have now become a failure trying to pass her time doing as many things as possible. I am now a lost soul trying to find an anchor in life through various means that keep me busy. The success of my business is a burning pyre for which I used the pillars from my married life. My working towards gender neutrality becomes the result of injustice I must have faced during my married years (and they don’t even know my story yet). And, of course, I must be trying unsuccessfully to fulfil the need of having my own children by picking cats and dogs off the streets and finding them homes.
They don’t even need to know anything else about me and my life. Just the information about my divorce leads them to the wonderful discovery about the incompleteness and meaninglessness of my life. Suddenly, my professional success is not a great achievement anymore, but a meek attempt to cover up a failed life.
But this is the better of the lot. They at least say these things and if the conversation will extend into more meetings, they will eventually correct themselves. What happens with the not-so-expressive ones? They do it very subtly and here is how they do it.
As a woman entrepreneur and gender neutrality advocate, I have been attending a lot of women entrepreneur events – ones that motivate women to step out of their kitchens, identify their talents, and build a business around it. Of course, while they are doing this they want to be very careful that a woman does not take it as a signal that she has to “compromise” the interests of her family for the sake of a career.
The message is clear: if women want to have a thriving career and be recognised for it, they must also have a husband and kids. For women, success as a homemaker comes first, and only then as a career woman. Suddenly, the Airtel ad where the wife goes home to cook for her husband starts to look like the new norm for modern, educated, and highly successful Indian woman.
The speakers at some of the women’s entrepreneurship events are carefully screened to invite “only” the complete women. The moderator specifically asks questions around the “have it all” success story of the speakers. When I look around in these crowded events, I can easily identify the ones who fit this stereotype, and those who do not.
Of course, there is a lot of hypocrisy in this. The last time I checked, no one asked top male entrepreneurs how many kids they have and how they manage household work along with their company. No one expects men entrepreneurs to talk about how they balance responsibilities at home when they are at entrepreneurship events. Why do we signal to aspiring women entrepreneurs that they will not be appreciated just on basis of their success at the workplace? What is this cultural imposition of an ideal and complete woman that everyone is supposed to conform to?
As a woman entrepreneur, I refuse to fall into this trap. My personal life is solely my business, and I don’t expect to be judged in the world of businesses and startups through the prism of what an adarsh bharatiya naree is supposed to be like.
Why is an individual’s choice to get married, stay married, have children relevant to her recognition as a businessperson?
This is not just my story or experience. This is the shared experience of many women out there. Get married and have kids, if that is what you want to do. However, don’t do it because that is the requirement to be considered successful. Stay married if you are happy in it, don’t get stuck in an unhappy marriage to avoid being considered a failure. Pursue your dreams because you have dreams – not because you don’t want to be titled as just a “housewife”.
Every individual’s life is unique – build yours the way you want it. In case, you are still in a brainstorming mode and figuring out how you can build a balanced career, and if you want to join me in my mission of creating gender neutral workplaces, do have a look at the expert course on capacity building for workplace diversity and sexual harassment prevention in India.
My parting words for the “I have it all” women readers – I have nothing against you. This is a conversation that keeps happening between me (who has everything else, except a husband and kids), my mom (who has a family but no career), and my sister who happens to be a part of your “complete” clan.
You worked for it and you got it. Maybe you wanted it this way, or maybe it just happened for you. Maybe, you have just realised that you are the titled “Mrs. Have it all”. Maybe you still don’t actually have it “all”. You know your story, your life, better than anyone ever will. The same way, we on the other side may be considered “incomplete” but in reality have whatever we wanted from life.
Peace and love.