Indian Women: Careers and family support

Women face many challenges when it comes to balancing children, family, and career; those challenges are particularly cumbersome for Indian women.  People accept that men have careers; however, many Indian women are expected to give up their jobs when they marry, or at least when they have children.  Societal pressure combines with familial disapproval to form seemingly insurmountable barriers to Indian women having both a career and a family.  But with a little creativity, there are ways to make both work.

My wife and I participated in a panel discussion as part of a ceremony for women graduating from her organization’s Leadership Development Program for Women (LDPW).  The panel discussion, titled, “Women Rising: The seen and unseen barriers,” was designed to answer questions about the challenges facing Indian women as they pursue careers and family.  It was also an opportunity to learn about those challenges first hand from their point of view.

How many Indian women could be in the workforce?

Indian women make up a large percentage—about 45 percent—of all enrolled undergraduate students in India.  Accordingly, we would expect to see similar numbers represented in the workforce; however, Indian women only make up about 24 percent of the entry level employees.  The percentages are far worse at higher levels, where women account for just 14 percent of executives (Catalyst 2015).

By comparison the percentage of women attending university in the US surpassed male attendance almost thirty years ago (Warner 2015).  According to a report from the U.S. Department of Education titled, The Condition of Education 2012, as of 2010, women made up 57 to 58 percent of the students earning bachelors degrees.  In addition, women accounted for 49 percent of the college educated workforce; however, Warner also noted, “While they are 45 percent of the overall S&P 500 labor force and 37 percent of first or mid-level officials and managers in those companies, they are only 25 percent of executive- and senior-level officials and managers.”

Where are all the educated women going?

In 2011, a panel in Mumbai attempted to answer the question, Why are educated women leaving the workforce?  They suggested that as the Indian economy continued to strengthen, it created less need for women to work and a dwindling of family support.  Shikha Sharma, Managing Director of Axis Bank in 2011, noted, “Earlier, there was compelling economic logic for women to continue working after marriage…this logic has now weakened and family support systems are definitely breaking down” (Shukla 2011).

This presents an interesting dilemma.  When the economy is struggling, women are more likely to receive support from family to work outside the home in order to improve the family’s financial position.  However, as the Indian economy strengthens and women’s salaries are no longer required, support for women having careers tapers, creating barriers to continued employment.  Countries want strong economies, but Indian women with career aspirations may want to hope for the opposite.

So a weak economy would fix everything for Indian women?

As Sharma noted, the underlying problem is a lack of familial support for Indian women’s careers.  During our panel, the question of unsupportive families dominated the discussion.  Managers graduating from the program wanted to know, “What does one do when someone’s family does not support her working?”

Panel Sketch
The panel included company employees, their spouses, and children.

During one discussion, someone proposed that women simply needed to be strong.  “Many times women shy away from expressing their point of view,” noted an Indian woman in the audience.  Another panel member, Lakshmi, suggested that women are their own worst enemies, carrying a lot of guilt—guilt about decisions at work, over perceived failed commitments at home, about working, around being away from children, about not being home for parents, even for not doing the dishes before leaving for work.  Her son, Pradyumn (Pradeep), recalled, “(she) couldn’t always be around when I was growing up.”

Is it that women are simply not vocal when it comes to the discussion of career?  Do they lack the fortitude to be heard?  Are they so guilt ridden about their choices that they opt for their perception of the easy way out and simply stay home?  The answers aren’t simple.

My wife’s organization hires about 50 percent women into it’s professional staff; however, that number falls considerably as women get married and have children.  Just as they are ready to enter into leadership positions, many women, most with Masters degrees, choose to stay home rather than pursue advanced opportunities.  But is it really a choice?

In the West people can choose a career or family, or both.  But Indian women are raised—one might even say, conditioned—to believe their primary responsibility is the home.  Nidhi Mahesh Mehrotra (2015) wrote, “When the time comes to make a choice, women, in a Pavlovian sort of way, ‘choose’ home above career as a conditioned response.”

If Mehrotra is correct, then it’s not a choice at all but a forgone conclusion that women will leave their careers behind for family, thinking it impossible to have both.  But if it is a forgone conclusion, if the decision, or lack thereof, is already made, how do we explain the comparatively small number of professional Indian women that have and continue to succeed with both family and career?

What role does family play?

Although Pradyumn missed his mother around the house during the day, he found extremely positive aspects of having a working mom.  “Unlike my friends parents, she has experience; she knows how the world works—I can talk to her,” he said, emotionally.

While upbringing, the economy, conditioning, guilt, and pressure from family play a role, supportive spouses seem to be the determinant factor in an Indian woman’s choice to continue a career after marriage and children.  In the West, people are raised to be independent and unsupportive spouses, parents, and in-laws are far more easily mitigated; however, in India, with it’s traditional set of values and gender specific roles, an unsupportive spouse can manifest itself as more than disapproval.

Many Indians move in with the husband’s parents after marriage.  Indian women whose husbands do not encourage their wive’s careers are left to battle not only their partner, but society, her parents, in-laws, and extended family.  As my wife’s Indian collegue noted, Indian men are predisposed to maintaining harmony in the home—disagreeing with your parents is not harmonious.  Therefore, even if a husband endorses his wife’s career, he may not do so in front of family. Finally, while some husbands may be supportive, they may not be willing to break with traditional roles, leaving Indian women to clean, cook, and take care of the children after a hectic day at work.  Indian women whose spouses consider marriage a partnership are the one’s who will be most successful at home and career.

What can organizations do?

There really weren’t any good answers from the panel about what to do about unsupportive family members—probably because no good answer exists.  Choose supportive spouses, communicate honestly, don’t be so hard on yourself, remember that family and career are possible, try to get past years of indoctrination, be more assertive and independent—all are good goals.  But is there something organizations can do to help?

The best thing organizations can do is to offer alternatives and opportunities.  My wife’s company has worked with their Indian employees to provide them the tools and flexibility to meet commitments at home while remaining part of the team.  They allow people to work from home for months at a time, provide temporary hardship transfers, modify work schedules, allow liberal leave policies, and offer Indian women successful Indian female mentors who’ve already overcome the issues of career and family.

But people also need to take personal responsibility for their careers—they need to think creatively.  The decision to return to work after marriage and children is difficult for everyone, but Indian women have options unavailable in the West.  Diksha Madhok (2016) describes how Indian women “have two things that women elsewhere in the world would be hard-pressed to find: close-knit extended families and access to cheap household labor”—they can hire maids and nannies, and have close family ties.

Some people will scoff at the idea of a nanny or even a family member raising their children.  At a graduation session earlier in the day, an Indian woman executive explained that she originally hired a nanny for her children, which cost 75 percent of her salary.  She too felt guilty.  When she discussed it with her husband, he explained that it was not about the money; if she wanted both a family and a career she should go for it.

During the same session, an audience member asked if her children loved the nanny more than her and her husband.  Her husband responded, “No, that is ridiculous.  Plus our children are fiercely independent because we weren’t there to solve every problem for them.”  Furthermore, in families where the mother stays home and raises the children, the children don’t grow up loving the working parent less than the one who stayed home.  Why would it be different if a sister, aunt, mother or nanny stayed home with the children?

In the end, organizations can only help Indian women by giving them options.  It is a personal decision to continue to work after marriage.  People may be conditioned to select home over work, or feel enough guilt to drive them toward giving up a potentially lucrative career, or lack the personal courage to defy their family’s wishes, or maybe even just want to be homemakers.  Despite offering alternatives, mentors, opportunities, and ideas, Indian women will leave the organization whether we like it or not.  Organizations need to accept that fact and focus on the next promising potential Indian woman.


If you enjoyed one of my articles or you’re just feeling left out, please subscribe to be notified as new material becomes available.

Follow me on Facebook and Twitter.

Cover photo taken by a program graduate.  Unless otherwise noted, all photos and drawings are those of the author.  Copyright can be found here.


Warner, Judith. "The Women's Leadership Gap." Center for American Progress. N.p., 4 Aug. 2015. Retrieved 24 June 2016, from https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/women/report/2015/08/04/118743/the-womens-leadership-gap/.

"The Condition of Education 2012." National Center for Educational Statistics. U.S. Department of Education, 2012. Retrieved 24 June 2016, from https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=72.

Catalyst. ”Quick Take: Women in the Labour Force in India." New York: Catalyst, 2015. Retrieved 24 June 2016, from http://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/women-workforce-india.

Shukla, G., & Punj, S. (2011, September 18). Why Women Drop Out. Business Today.

Retrieved 24 June 2016, from http://www.businesstoday.in/magazine/special/most-powerful-women-in-business-2011-why-women-drop-out/story/18319.html.

Mehrotra, N. M. (2015, September 14). Why Women In India have Jobs, Not Careers. The Huffington Post. Retrieved 24 June 2016, from http://www.huffingtonpost.in/marketing-buzzar/career-woman-a-fallacy_b_8063276.html

Madhok, D. (2016, April 7). What India’s working women have that Western women don’t. Quartz. Retrieved June 24, 2016, from http://qz.com/656231/what-indias-working-women-have-that-western-women-dont/

2 thoughts on “Indian Women: Careers and family support”

  1. Robert,

    Great article. Glad DT offers so many options. The Indian population has a long way to go before a woman will be able to overcome the pressure to stay home.

    Possible Correction:
    If Mehrotra is correct, than it’s not a choice at all but a forgone conclusion that women will leave their careers behind for family, thinking it impossible to have both.
    Mick

    Should “than” be “then?”

    1. Thanks for the comment! Agree re: the company offering as much flexibility as they do. They actually offer those kinds of options in the US, as well as in India. Also, many thanks for catching the correction! Changes made 🙂

Don't let the noisy interweb stifle your voice. Leave a comment.