#WITW India

Mothers-in-law at work?

Women business leaders in India find fresh, new ways to build support for working women.

Family or career, or both – is the question of work-life balance a myth?

“You have to be ready to let go of some control … at home,” says Ipsita Dasgupta, General Electric’s Chief Commercial Officer for South Asia.

Spirited and often diverse opinions coloured the opening panel discussion at the Women in the World Summit in New Delhi today as discussion focused on what must surely be one of the most polarizing questions of our time.

Dasgupta insisted that in her mind, there is no such thing as balance and that women have to be ready to relinquish some of the control at home: “Research shows that women do three times the housework and six times the child care at the same level of pay. Some of it is actually us,”

“Research also shows that we actually want to own the home. We have to be ready to let some of it go.”

Echoing the observations of the German Defence Minister, Ursula Von Der Leyen, at the Women in the World Summit in London, Ms Dasgupta said she had made a concerted decision to be less critical of her husband’s work in the home.

“One of the big realizations for me was that my husband was not always wrong about what to do with the children or about the level of cleaning. And once I started giving up some of that then I could spend more time being right at work. If you’re always the person who decides, you become the default. Just be willing to give up some of the personal,” she said.

Throughout the discussion on what it takes to encourage and make women leaders, the majority of panelists agreed on the need to relax control but few managed to agree on which aspects of a woman’s life should be the driving force in career decision-making.

Mallika Kapur, CNN’s Mumbai-based international correspondent, launched the discussion by pointing out a key statistic from India: that 48% of women drop out from the career force by mid-career level and that India’s GDP could be boosted by two percentage points if they could be encouraged to stay on.

“So how do we keep them there?” she asked.

Dasgupta described an initiative pioneered by her company which had launched a ‘Mother-in-law day at work’ in a bid to offer first-hand experience and understanding of women’s workplaces and the responsibilities these entail.

Barkha Dutt, Director of Barkha Dutt Live Media and Consulting Editor for NDTV, disagreed vocally, insisting this was not the correct space to focus on.

“I have a huge problem with bringing Mothers In Law into the workplace. Why do I need that seal of approval? That just reinforces a certain kind of discrimination. We are fighting for equality at home and not at the office,” she said.

“We have to fight for equal parenting, housework. We have to challenge these notions of masculinity and femininity. We don’t need advertisements about these superwomen who call home and say ‘Aaj matar paneer banana’ [Making dinner menu choices ‘‘Please make a pea cottage cheese dish today” from the workplace] and then moves on to a meeting,”

“Why does she need to decide at all?,” said Dutt highlighting Dasgupta’s earlier point about relinquishing some control at home.

Naina Lal Kidwai, Chairman and India Director of HSBC Asia Pacific, differed a little when it came to talking about the role of home in a woman’s career speaking in a rather more conciliatory tone.

“The truth is that many women of my generation and younger were able to go to work because our mothers-in-laws were living in same home. And they had the flexibility to run their homes. We do have to change – not by fighting but by being very firm and working from within,” said Kidwai.

However the sentiment that bridged all dissent between the panelists was that of guilt and how women are still so much more conflicted about working and leaving their home and children than men in the same situation. Kidwai said that the core of the work-life debate was driven by feelings of guilt.

She observed that the success of the very best working women appears to be bolstered and predicated on the support systems they construct around themselves: “We have to befriend anyone and everyone to help us. That is just good management,” said Kidwai.

Dasgupta remembered that she was able to get back to work after just six weeks of maternity leave because of all the informal networks around her: “You need community and you get better as you get along.”

Padmasree Warrior, Former Chief Technology and Strategy Officer with Cisco expressed gratitude for the fact that she had never really been forced to choose between family and home. She spoke about a touching blog written by her young ‘feminist’ son who once wrote about how he could not understand why career women could not be moms.

“It made me cry. If you go with the mindset that somehow having a family conflicts with having a career, then you will be forced to choose. And no, it’s not easy. At the end of the day, I love the fact that I am taking charge [at work]. My advice would be that [women should not] think of career and family as opposing things,” said Warrior.

Wrapping up what was without doubt a lively debate, the five women agreed that despite the multiple demands on women’s lives and time, it is equally essential that they carve out some time for themselves.

Warrior concluded: “If you neglect yourself, then resentment starts to build up, towards family, towards work. You become a burn out if you don’t take care of yourself.”

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