Indra Nooyi is a 21st century Everywoman. Not that every woman will now aspire to reach the stellar career heights she has touched. But every woman can now look upon her as a muse. For, just as Nooyi took over as the new chief executive officer (CEO) of the beverage and snack giant PepsiCo, she charted out her idea of the shortest and sweetest route to success for career women: "Pick the right husband. I did. And here I am." A heart-warming clue to the winners, losers, sceptics and repeat defenders of unconditional commitment in tandem with a clambering career.
'Mate value' seems to be the flavour of the season. It's the latest sociology jargon-drawing on behavioural psychology-doing the rounds all across the world. If self-esteem is a parameter of a person's performance and standing in society, then a lot of it depends on how people assess their own value in a relationship and the value of their partners. And the emerging rule of thumb in the politics of mating is: women with superior intelligence, education and income may have high 'mate value', but make unsuccessful wives. Sociologists are keeping a meticulous track and the world of family studies is buzzing. And with it all, the debate on career women has taken a new spin.
On the face of it, Nooyi's comment sounds like a cliché. But it has added new fuel to fire. A slew of research in international social science journals has thrown up negative images of career women. If they are to be believed, the typical career girl might be well-educated, ambitious, informed and engaged, but is more likely to grow dissatisfied with her husband (Journal of Social Forces, 2006). Professional women are more likely to get divorced, more likely to cheat and less likely to have children (Topics in Economic Analysis & Policy, 2005). They are discontented if they quit jobs and stay home with kids (Journal of Marriage and the Family, 2003). They are unhappy if they make more money than their husbands (Journal of Family Issues, 2006) or less (Journal of Marriage and Family, 2001). A career woman's family is more likely to fall ill and even her house will be dirtier.
Yet the lives of successful career women tell a different story. "Most successful women seem to have one thing in common-an unusually supportive husband," says Cambridge historian Samita Sen, who now heads the School of Women's Studies at Jadavpur University in Kolkata. What explains Nooyi's climb in the pressure-cooker world of international business? Competence, confidence and commitment, to be sure. She was 44 when she joined PepsiCo-a place famous for its driven culture. Getting there was one thing but staying there was another. Yet Nooyi broke through the glass ceiling-from vice-president, president, CFO to CEO-in record time. "Women who reach the top have to perform at a higher level," Nooyi went on record with a poignant quote, "I work hard or work harder." And what allows her to blitz through her days? "I have a fantastically supportive husband," she says. Nooyi lives with her husband-a management consultant-and two daughters in Fairfax county, Connecticut, US.
Closer home, Lalita Gupte, joint managing director of ICICI-who hit both the Fortune and Forbes lists as one of the most powerful women in world business this year-says the same: "My husband has been my emotional anchor." Her job profile requires extensive travel and irregular hours. "But every woman has a way of working out her work-life balance at a level and to a degree that meets the needs of her family," she says, refusing to accept that career women ignore family. Working women, she believes, make less nagging mothers and devote quality time to family. "Let's not forget, family is not merely a responsibility. We also love them." There was a time when she would get up at 5.30 a.m., pack lunch for children and drop them off to school on her way to work. She took care of their education and cooked at home, too. "The kids loved it," she says. Her husband, Dileep, formerly in the Navy, opted for early retirement.
And they are not the only ones. Three other 'corporate heroines' from India who figure in the 2006 Fortune list of most powerful women-Chanda Kochhar of ICICI, Naina Lal Kidwai of HSBC and Kiran Mazumdar Shaw of Biocon-have all acknowledged the support extended by their husbands. Aniruddha Lahiri, who headed human resource for many years at Unilever and is currently president, the TCG Group, too, recalls instances where a husband compromised for his wife's career. "I have seen husbands taking sabbaticals, managing the house and looking after children to allow wives to single-mindedly pursue their work at defining moments in their careers." Interestingly, Carly Fiorina, who made waves as the first woman CEO of one of America's largest corporations, has just brought out her memoir, Tough Choices, revealing how her husband sidetracked his career to become a rock solid foundation for hers.
There is, obviously, a paradox at work. If women, careers and marriage do not mix, why are the super-achievers singing paeans to their husbands? And why is social science research throwing up negative stereotypes of career women? To actor-director, Aparna Sen, who has explored the theme of marriage in many of her films, it reflects a lingering bias in the system. "It's a mindset where women are still 'accepted' socially only when they appear to give equal attention to the home, too." Sen faced this dilemma when she took over as the editor of a women's magazine. "When we started, two decades back, women were spreading their wings and a woman's identity was still defined either by her father or her husband." Although she felt women needed to come out and work ("to get a sense of the self"), her magazine just couldn't speak out openly.
"The findings sound more like masculinity under fire," asserts Sen, who is now working on the evolution of modern marriages in India. It's worth noting, she holds, the research never suggests women's biology or psychology make them better suited for housework and child-rearing. There are far too many successful women around for that. "They just implicate that professionally ambitious women erode their husbands' health and happiness." But the lives of real professional women show that the reality is possibly just the reverse. "Women succeed precisely because their husbands do not expect them to play the traditional role of a housewife. Their relationships are built on genuine understanding and respect. Why else would the super-achievers talk about their husbands?"
A long march, no doubt, from those days when women first entered the world of work. Careers had taken off with little help from husbands and a lot of support from mothers, sisters, and mothers-in-law. "And sometimes by chance," says septuagenarian Leila Seth, the first woman chief justice of a high court in India. "I could study law only because the institute I went to in London was not strict about attendance." Having a career, for instance, did not mean she could wish away her wifely chores-keeping her husband's matching socks ready and washed. Careers also dipped and soared in cue with the husband's needs. Seth had twice declined, "with no regrets", the offer of becoming a judge of the Patna High Court because Patna held no career opportunities for her husband. "But my husband understands how much my work means to me."
But in the new millennium, careers are blooming. In 1950, there were 14 women pursuing higher studies per hundred males in India. The ratio is now 68:100 (Report of Consultative Committee of the Parliament, 2006). For every five men, there is one woman who works in an income-generating activity in urban India today. Women account for 25-30 per cent in software, up from 10 per cent in the 1980s. In pharmaceuticals, they comprise a fourth of the workforce. In it-enabled services, the ratio stands at 1:1. The number in commercial banks has gone up by more than 40 per cent in the last five years. Of the 2,00,000 service sector vacancies filled via job portal naukri.com in 2005, 70,000 were by women; a quarter of the three million resumés on monster.com belong to women.
As new job opportunities unfold, women find that work is fun and it pays well. And they often find that their husbands are with them. Check out a FICCI ladies organisation survey (Women in Service Industry: A Comparative Study in Five Metros, 2005). Nearly 85 per cent women claimed that they enjoyed their working status and over 45 per cent gushed over the 'support' they got from their husbands. And if husbands did not help as much with housework, women had other resources to get by. And even if they felt guilty about balancing career and home, they were convinced that work was not less important than home (see graphs).
"Why can't a woman be more like a man?" mused Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. Future generations might ask, "Why can't a man be more like a woman?" The increase in female employment accounted for a big chunk of global growth in recent decades, says the Economist (A Guide to Womenomics, April 2006): "Carve up the world's economic growth a different way and a surprising conclusion emerges... the increased employment of women has contributed much more to global growth than China has." Add the value of housework and child-rearing, and women probably account for just over half of the world output. They are also becoming more important in the global marketplace not just as workers, but also as consumers, entrepreneurs, managers and investors. As prejudice fades over coming years, women will have greater scope to boost their productivity, incomes-and, hopefully, their 'mate value'. Fingers crossed!