[Women's Day] What (ambitious) women want – hint: it’s not family support

We should be able to tell our girls that the warmth and protection of a family is not an additional 'hurdle' they need to cross, but a source of strength because they will have a co-founder/co-CEO in life, not just a supportive team.

[Women's Day] What (ambitious) women want – hint: it’s not family support

Wednesday March 09, 2022,

6 min Read

The adage, "behind every successful man is a woman", is an interesting phrase to decode. Does it imply a ‘supporting’ and ‘understanding’ woman? There is a huge possibility that the woman in question was much more than that. She was someone who took the lead and took ownership i.e., held end to end responsibility, across a range of matters.

One would imagine that the ingredients to make women successful in their careers would be no different. Over the last 10 years, I have interacted with several ambitious women candidates. Across most of these conversations, a common statement I found intriguing is “my family / husband is supportive". It is difficult to gauge the exact meaning of this ‘family support’ they often refer to. Over time, I have reached the conclusion that it usually indicates a 'best efforts' based encouragement. When it comes to meaningful choices involving one’s family, however, the expectations are clear. On matters such as time commitments, location constraints and the ability to commit to growth at the workplace, women cannot expect the same support / encouragement from families as men do. This conversation is not one of equals.

The classical Indian cultural upbringing has led to its own challenges for most career-oriented women in India. The emphasis on educating women has increasingly been embraced with a lot of pride and commitment. This includes pushing girls to score well in school, along with social / familial expectations that they should ‘focus on studies’.

However, the next phase of life throws up complex relative choices between higher education and aspirational careers versus careers that enable women to focus on the family. This of course, is a clear departure from the original enthusiastic push towards 'excelling' in education. This encouragement to excel gets more and more feeble with marriage, children and broader family responsibilities entering the scene. It was a different world for our grandmothers - one where women's education wasn't prioritised and maybe at some level it was made clear from the beginning. However, for women today, this gradual shift in focus through different phases of life is extremely frustrating. It raises expectations initially, but then forces long held aspirations to die a slow death.

Despite these hurdles and the social conditioning involved, examples abound of women who have risen and shone in their careers - and it is admirable. Most of these successful women would fall into one of two types:

The first is a Superwoman: someone who embraces dual leadership challenges. She is the ‘CEO’ at work and the ‘CEO’ at home, having invariably built out a strong support system at both places. In addition to balancing career demands, she also raises a child (primary person in charge of school / homework, social events, and health/nutrition), takes charge of the kitchen and support staff at home, and takes ownership for festivals and family gatherings, nurturing the broader family connections etc. There are some organisational theories about how one individual cannot manage multiple leadership roles within an organisation (e.g., you rarely have someone heading both marketing and HR functions), but this Superwoman has disproved these theories. Even if she does not excel at both places, she is the designated leader in both. This is admirable as the stakes are extremely high for an ambitious career woman and failure on either front can be hard hitting.

The second type is a Free-Spirited woman: someone who has decided to bypass traditional social expectations of prioritising family over career. She could be married, separated, single or in a relationship. Irrespective, she chooses or creates a context that does not involve the need to wear a second 'CEO' hat. In effect, she may well have decided to adopt a conventional man's approach and live on her own terms. She follows self-defined standards of 'responsibility' and ‘nurturing’ and is willing to make some trade-offs. Ultimately, there is no reason why when it comes to women, true success should involve a much higher benchmark of taking on 'dual leadership' roles. This choice is bold and enables a level playing field. I suspect that over the years, it has taken a lot of conviction and self-confidence from women to build social circles that laud this attitude.

While these categories are not absolute and do not define the world in totality, they are indicative of what it takes for women to succeed beyond some conducive constructs at the workplace. The real question is whether we are collectively ready to head towards a third type that has small traces of existence today - where indeed, there isn't just 'support' but 'leadership' at home, in the form of ‘co-CEOs/co-founders'. The crux is joint leadership, ownership and decision making. Unless the co-founders at home are identified, take charge and huddle for decisions, we are stuck with setting a high bar for women to succeed.

Effectively, women need to be 'co-authorised' to commit at work, very much like their spouses. What they commit should be a conversation amongst co-founders. This ‘co-authorisation’ can dramatically enhance the credibility of women at the workplace. It needn't be at the cost of their spouse's career, nor should it depend on others sacrificing their own aspirations - we shouldn't be making new mistakes to fix old ones. But some degree of boldness and zero-base thinking is important to help women break out of the current cycle, which often leads to broken commitments both at home and at the workplace.

These ambitions that women nurse was probably seeded when they were enthusiastically encouraged to excel in academics and compete against the boys in their class. For those of us raising boys, it's time to introduce the concept of co-CEOs at home to ensure the playing field is levelled. We should be able to tell our girls that the warmth and protection of a family is not an additional 'hurdle' they need to cross, but a source of strength because they will have a co-founder/co-CEO in life, not just a supportive team. As for the grown-ups, it's never too late to start defining a new normal. If there is one thing the world has learnt through the pandemic, it is that a 'new normal' is possible.

Organisational commitments and investments in women’s careers also rely heavily on the hope that women and their families will honour these investments seriously. I do look forward to a world where organisations that are genuinely eager to partner with women are not penalised by one sided commitment. When this starts to happen, then hopefully someday we will no longer feel the need to create a separate category of 'top 100 women leaders'. Instead, we will just find women entering the ‘top 100 leaders’ list.

While this eventual goal may be a while away, I hope we all collectively find it in us to continue taking determined steps in this direction, with women demanding principles of fairness in all spheres of life - not just at work, but at home as well.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

Edited by Rekha Balakrishnan