Women And Ambition — What’s Getting in the Way?
If there was one moment at our recent Women & Work discussion that elicited some mild gasps and controversy, it was when Dr. Ritu Anand, deputy head of global HR for TCS, talked about women and ambition.
“The major issue [keeping women from staying in the workforce], there are two. One is: The society and the conditioning we have all been born with, nurtured with, and are living with, and don’t have the guts to do anything about. And the second thing is, we, ourselves. We don’t have aspirations because of the first conditioning. We don’t aspire enough. And this is the reality: Despite being educated equally and more, [women’s] aspirations are subdued and never flower out. And that continues throughout their life.”
Anand is not wrong. It’s a conflicting message that middle-class and upper-class Indian women receive today. For some, the first 20-some years of their life are spent living up to expectations they achieve the highest mark, the most sports victories, the loftiest award, the most advanced degree. Then abruptly, they are told the most important thing they can do in their life is to be a good wife and mother.
For others, the reverse is true. They spend their whole youth being told their purpose is to be a wife and mother, then, as an adult, listen to society bemoan the aspiration deficit that is preventing more women from joining and staying in the workforce.
It’s a conflicting message for ambitious women, because it’s a conflicted message; society doesn’t know what it thinks about women and ambition, doesn’t know what it wants its women to aspire to. We can only assume that this is the result of a society that’s in flux; as India makes rapid advancements towards development, its urban population is bombarded with more Western values around women’s financial independence — but we are not yet ready to shed the traditional gender roles that have, for so long, defined Indian family life. In the process, as India rethinks what it means to be a woman, society calls her confusion over her role a deficit, a phrase that shifts responsibility back onto the woman.
Let’s clear up one thing: There is no aspiration deficit. There are plenty of women with ambition in this country, and they are aspiring just fine. They are simply aspiring and achieving in those realms of their lives where they’ve been conditioned to believe they can have the most impact and value.
The underpinnings of aspiration start early. Psychiatrist Anna Fels, who wrote Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives, studied the childhood ambitions of both boys and girls and found they were characterised by the same two components: mastery and recognition. Mastery is obvious; without excelling at a skill, there is no hope of success. Recognition, though, is often overlooked in discussions about ambition – yet it is a basic human need and is the source and, eventually, the product of aspiration.
The problem with this for women is that we get less recognition than men. Less, full stop. No matter how much we learn, how hard we try, how well we perform – less. Starting in preschool and primary school, studies show boys receive more attention, more instruction, and more reward than girls. In higher education, studies again show men dominate class discussions and are more likely to receive financial support for post-graduate studies. (While nearly all of these studies were conducted in Western countries, it is reasonable to expect an exaggerated version of the same here in India, where boys are valued so much more than girls.)
These discrepancies have narrowed, in recent times, surely. But that only means, as Fels writes, that “women now experience the most powerful social and institutional discrimination during their twenties and early thirties, after they have left the educational system and started pursuing their ambitions.” Right when ambitious women are striving toward professional aspirations hardest, they receive the least recognition for their efforts; they are told to get another ambition.
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That other ambition is, of course, The Home. It’s the one field in which women traditionally get more recognition than men; wifehood and motherhood have been lyricized for ages. Talk of women’s lack of professional aspiration necessarily excludes an examination of how this subtle social conditioning around motherhood seeps in and informs a woman’s sense of her own value; anyone who has been raised to believe that her primary value to her family and community is in childrearing and wifehood will be more likely to pursue mastery and recognition in those realms. It should be no surprise that she feels less inclined to battle the disparity in recognition she’s getting in a professional context.
Solving the problem of women and ambition, the so-called aspiration deficit, means actually examining our closely held ideas around what boys and girls should be good at. It means slowly dismantling those social signals that uphold our altar to motherhood and wifehood, and teaching our young girls and boys a gender-blind version of personal choice.
This might feel threatening to some, but in reality it is beneficial to all, to both men and women. Opening up and encouraging women’s options also opens up and encourages opportunities for men. (The fact that society so closely ties masculinity to professional and financial success is problematic; but no one is talking about men’s aspiration gap in the domestic sphere.)
When this happens, some women will still choose to excel in the home. Others will choose to excel in a profession. Many more will seek to excel at both, perhaps in tandem, perhaps one at a time. But the choice of which ambition and how to pursue it will be their own.
There is no aspiration deficit – there is a deficit of allowing women to establish their own aspirations and enabling women to achieve them. Women, in fact, all share the grandest and most basic ambition anyone can have: Mastery of choice.