Monday, July 21, 2014

Nobody can have it all -- so why are women alone so earnestly warning other women about not having it all?

I heard with a sinking feeling that PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi has added her voice to the chorus of successful, high-earning women opining that women can't have it all, but even I was not prepared for the level of incredulity felt when I actually read her interview. I struggle with her message not because I believe that women can have it all – I don't; I don't believe men can have it all either – but because I wonder why women, even successful women, are so quick to blindly reinforce that "women can't have it all." Why can't high-profile women turn around and ask the better question – the right question: why is all this angst arising in women alone?

When was the last time we heard men acknowledge and worry publicly about not having it all? Children grow up while fathers are in boardrooms, courtrooms, schoolrooms, hospitals, and city councils, yet men don't tell each other that they are missing an important part of life by working till midnight. From an early age, and over countless generations, men have swallowed, imbibed, absorbed the fact that days are made of finite hours that need to be handed over to the world of work. And the nature of work, when strategically chosen, will give back enough to take a wife who will keep house while raising babies. Men have thus always pretended they have it all.

I am not saying that the ways of men are in anyway superior to the ways that have been handed to, and meekly embraced by, middle- and upper-class women. I am saying that my writer-husband, who is the stay-at-home father and primary care-giving parent, who wrote minimally in the last 12 years while appreciating the opportunity to raise three young children, knows better than to turn around and tell other men that they aren't having it all or that I, as a woman, am not having it all.

My husband's day-to-day routine is very different from those of other men, but his decision to take over for me gives us both some peace and calm. There is some angst on his part on devoting less time to his writing and the consequences for his lifelong earning potential, but he figures that something will work out when the time is right. Most importantly, my husband knows better than to accept snide, put-us-down comments from other people (men and women alike, including an occasional friend or relative) as justifications for why we cannot dream of a different life than the ones expected from both sexes.  

It is frustrating that even powerful women like Indra Nooyi refuse to see the forest for the trees; refuse to question the system; refuse to acknowledge that some of our most vicious and powerful and inadvertent detractors are other women around us. Sometimes, these women live in our homes or hearts and subtly and effectively undermine the confidence and dignity we have managed to earn gradually over the years. Yes, I am alluding to Nooyi's now-famous milk-buying episode that has several women gushing with awe that even the most powerful, corporate woman that India has ever produced meekly went out to buy milk on the day she was appointed president of PepsiCo.

As a good Indian daughter, Nooyi takes her mother's words at face value.  But I am distressed that she actually used it to justify the glib idea that women, and women alone, cannot have it all. In my view, the episode inside her home was unfair and discriminatory towards her. Perhaps her mother was having a bad day, but if Indra Nooyi were a man, I am convinced that her mother would not have taken it out on her in such a manner.

Here are the facts as she recounted during the recent Aspen Ideas Festival: Her husband was home at 8 p.m. but her mother accepted that he was tired. They had a couple of people at home who were hired domestic help, but her mother apparently forgot that they existed. Nooyi came home at 10 p.m. with news that only one in a billion women has the privilege to announce – that she had just been promoted to president of a multinational corporation – but her mother dismissed it like so much spoilt milk. Worse, even after Nooyi finally told her, her mother did not soften up or give in; did not congratulate her or apologize for having been preoccupied with an everyday detail. Instead, she justified putting her and her accomplishments down. Now imagine if she were a son, instead of a daughter. This is how her mother's words would sound: 

Let me explain something to you. You might be president of PepsiCo. You might be on the board of directors. But when you enter this house, you're the wife husband, you're the daughter son, you're the daughter-in-law son-in-law, you're the mother father. You're all of that. Nobody else can take that place. So leave that damned crown in the garage. And don't bring it into the house. 

The question is not whether anybody else could have taken her place; the question is whether she was treated reasonably well even under her own roof. Why does Nooyi internalize this and recount this as a story about her gender? Why not blame it on her mother's gender, disposition, generation and upbringing? Maybe the fixed values and expectations of our culture need to shoulder some blame.
More depressing is Nooyi's implied acceptance of this personal incident as an anecdote to support the theme that even women in her stature can't have it all. What is the moral of this story to middle- and working-class women? What are women like me supposed to take out of it in our quest to better juggle our work and family?

Ms. Nooyi, if ever your PR folks stumble upon this blog post, here is my humble list of 'dos and don'ts' requests to you: 

  • Please don't make it easy for naysayers of either sex by doing their facile job for them. Think about the power of your utterances.
  • Talk to us about how to recognize sabotaging and undermining, at work and at home. Keep the progressive people's collective morale up by highlighting the unusual strides in parenting that pockets of men and women have quietly achieved with and without the help of their spouses, family, friends, and bosses.
  • Give us solid, usable advice about how to "develop mechanisms with…secretaries,…extended office,…everybody around [us]" to practice "seamless parenting" when most of us don't bring in billions for our companies; when most of us cannot reasonably expect to "train people at work" to be our extended family.
  • Tell us what policies you and your company have implemented to ensure that even your receptionists and secretaries can hope to co-opt men and women around them to support them in their parenting responsibilities.
  • Help the younger generation understand which job sectors and industries, which companies, genuinely care, and at what levels of pay, about their employees' commitments as parents, caregivers, and socially responsible people.
  • Ask why only women have begun to tell each other that they cannot manage to balance it all. Are male spouses the elephants in the family room that everybody ignores? Do women allow their husbands to 'lean back' and not 'lean in' at family meetings?

Nooyi has more influence than most people in this world, men or women. She has the power to think, talk and act in ways that can bring about some change in this world. Yet, when she too casually reinforces the idea that the problem is in women's expectations, we have to wonder if and how the system benefits from all this visible hand-wringing by women.  If she really cannot see how far she has come, then we might as well all give up here and now, as her interview has already been described as the "interview of the year."