Why women can have it all, without having to ‘have it all’

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It was 5 pm on July 1st. I was typing away like a mad woman, finishing up the last two slides of our draft VC pitch. I literally had 2 more hours to go before heading to the hospital. Bags to pack, a room to clean and a minimum of 1 hour play time with my 4 year old before her life changed. Tons to do I thought to myself as my fingers typed away. I was going to have my second child in less than 12 hours. Thankfully I got to everything I wanted and got myself admitted in the hospital, feeling all empowered and brave from the distractions that kept me busy through the day that went by. Waiting for 8 hours before a c-section was just too much, I overdosed on twitter through the wee hours of the morning until it was time to have the baby. And as I was being wheeled away to have the baby, my mom’s words rang in my ears. “I had to get back into the kitchen, back to my routine the very next day I came back home after having you”, she told me. “I had in laws, siblings, husband, an older child — people waiting with a laundry list of things for me to do for them!”

For most women in her generation in India, most things in life weren’t a choice. They did what they had to, for the sake of in laws, husband, children, the extended family that often all lived under one roof. They were expected to do everything on demand — from caring for the families to following religious rules and rituals to knowing their place in the home, family and society. And in some cases, they were expected to work for a living as well.They had to do it all, within the confines of how society had prescribed. You could argue their life was all about ‘doing it all’. And ‘all’ here was defined by society.While all she and her siblings and other women I know of her generation, just wanted to stop doing it all, put their legs up for a few hours and just be left alone! I remember thinking to myself waiting outside the ward that it’s amazing how I don’t have any of those obligations, that kind of servitude or pressures of being a woman. My husband would share those sleepless nights with me, care for the new born and the older child as much as I do, take turns with cooking and home care while I attended customer meetings. It had been that way for the first one while we both slogged it away at work back in Silicon Valley. The second one was going to be no different.

And yet … the first thing that I saw when I was well enough to go back to my twitter feed hours later that day after having my little boy — was the madness around the now famous interview by Pepsi CEO, Indra Nooyi. “Women can’t have it all” — those words appeared over and over and over again in my twitter feed, in my Facebook feed, on email. And I know this is not the first time this has shown up in the media. The 2012 storm from the cover image shown above was much less intense (thanks to tech media not going as nuts as they did this time around!). Having just recently recalled my mom’s words that morning and the blessing to not have to ‘do it all’, you can imagine my reaction. Did I have it all wrong? Was I failing as a mother? Will my 4 year old soon resent me for aspiring to follow my passion in the tech world? Do I not have it all? I wasn’t really sure anymore after reading her article, I could suddenly come up with another 10 things at least that I didn’t have and I could come up with another bunch that I wasn’t happy about, especially regarding the things I already had! A few days of guilt, brooding all partially fueled by the sleepless nights continued. Eventually I got really angry that I’d let this woman mess with me like she probably did with a gazillion other women. Thankfully a simple set of questions pretty much saved me from further madness.

So who defines all?

(No, not even Indra Nooyi gets to define what ‘all’ means!)

I know a few friends of mine who swear that nothing gives them more joy and fulfillment in life than raising their children, these same friends like most moms think it’s simpler to gouge your eyes out somedays than handle those same children! Some of them are lucky — they have a support system, some of them don’t but many of them still consider themselves lucky for other reasons. I have friends who get high just thinking about their career aspirations, these same folks on other days wish they could just get married and cook endlessly (not that these are really the opposite of each other!) I know of young 20 somethings who’d rather be living on the other side of the world than in India — a land now fast becoming renowned for it’s growing rape culture. You would never know that given how hard they party and work in conservative Chennai! I had a maid who helped us with our home, growing up in Chennai. Her son went on to get educated with a job in tech which eventually took him to New Jersey. That maid now owns a home in Chennai (which officially costs more than homes in the bay area!) and I regularly catch up with her and her grandkids today, 20 years since she worked for us. I’m sure her definition of ‘all’ has changed over the years. I can look back at my own life and say there have been years when I felt like I ruled the world, and there were times when I had nothing, felt pretty useless but loved the sloth and slow pace of my life. It’s not just that each one of us has a different definition of what’s cool, what’s happiness and what’s meaningful — each of us at different points in our own life has a different definition of it.

So why then, do we have to take Indra Nooyi’s definition of happiness and meaning and family and declare that it’s true for all women? Why should anyone subject all women to her definition and standards of what it means to be a woman or what it means to ‘have it all’? As though ‘all’ was a singular thing, a specific place defined by a set number of qualities!

Who do you know exactly that thinks they’ve had it all?!

(‘Having it all’ is no way to discuss women’s issues but it’s certainly a way to make women feel like shit about themselves)

Yes we’re talking about women but if we really wanted to discuss women’s issues, then there are tons of other ways to talk about them. Tons of ways to frame each issue separately in context. Like issues around child care for working women, role of women in tech or role of men in household care. ‘Having it all’ is clearly not one of them. Because there’s something even more fundamental to this question of whether someone can have it all. And that’s the question of gender. Which gender do you know that ‘has it all’? I’m sure all of us can confirm that we know of people across all gender that don’t have it all. Gender differentiation is practically irrelevant here when discussing ‘having it all’. There might be a rare few gems in the world who claim and feel like they have it all. But the notion that one has it all or not is not true for most people on this planet! And is certainly not just women’s issue if we were to discuss it. And by making it a woman thing — we’re intentionally highlighting to our women over and over again that they are inadequate and have miles to go before they reach this place of perfection called ‘have it all’. Or even better — just cannot get there no matter what they do! It sounds strangely familiar like the notion of beauty, cleanliness, health and other notions we continually torture our women with as a society. ‘Having it all’ is not a women’s issue (and it’s technically, not an issue at all!)

What can we do to make our girls feel less like losers!

(Pssst! Secret! It’s kind of not complicated. It involves not telling our girls and specifically our #womenintech that they can’t have it all)

The statistics around women in tech is abysmal. 18% of tech workforce in Google, 15% of tech force in Facebook constitute women. That’s only worse everywhere else! Something we should be shameful about as an industry. Thankfully companies are publishing their statistics and at least seemingly taking some steps. Until they were trashed in the media in early 2012, Facebook had no women on it’s board of directors despite having a predominantly female consumer base for their product! As Bloomberg reports — “We’re long past having to defend or explain why women should be on boards, given all the data that shows how companies with female as well as male directors perform better,” said Anne Mulcahy, former chairman and chief executive officer of Xerox Corp. and a director at Johnson & Johnson Co., Target Corp. and Washington Post Co. “It’s unfortunate when companies with a large percentage of women constituents don’t reflect that in their boardrooms.” And it really is. Unfortunately for us, it’s only been getting worse. The last few months have seen one sexual harassment case after another in Silicon Valley. And I point out here that it’s an epidemic in the tech industry that’s spreading around the globe! And we’ve officially stooped low enough to loudly declare that ‘attractive women in tech are a rare species to come by’ .. here’s a quick glimpse of how low we’ve gotten.

So how can we do our bit to keep away from messing with our #WomenInTech? It starts with not writing shit like the comment linked above. It starts with a little discretion as people writing about our peers, tweeting about interesting things in the tech world or news written for PR.Except for Tech Cocktail which wonderfully laid out a colorful perspective on how women digested that ‘have it all’ interview, every other tech journalist from every famous publication reported what the Pepsi CEO said, making it sound true rather than giving it any decent perspective or treatment that would have been fair to #womenintech. We can follow women and orgs that truly care and work towards a better industry for women. And we can try honestly to understand and be empathetic towards the issues that plague women in this industry. Or at the very least — just not tweet or re-tweet or write declaring how women should and shouldn’t be. And while at that — let’s also stop encouraging our girls to achieve ‘supermom-dom’ or ‘starmom-dom’!!

Let’s start by encouraging our girls and peers to dream big and go after it in whatever-the-hell way they please. The world is theirs and they can have it all or have nothing depending on what they wish and love. And while there will be obstacles and pain along the way and they may not get everything they want … no one dare tell them that they need to live up to some CEO’s definition of ‘having it all’.

Image source – The Atlantic

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Ashwini Asokan

Co-founder, Mad Street Den & Founder, Mad Street Labs. UX professional, Mobile UX, Exploring fascinating India, Journey from Bay Area to Bangalore, Design and culture around the world. Follow her on twitter @AshOnIndia

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