What India’s working women have that Western women don’t

In hand.
In hand.
Image: Reuters/Prashanth Vishwanathan
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Over the last couple of decades, while Indian society continued to battle entrenched patriarchy, a cohort of educated, middle-class women surged through the glass ceiling and emerged as leaders in traditionally male dominions like banking, consulting, and technology.

These women inhabit an almost post-gender world, where they have it all: a phenomenal career trajectory and a married life with children.

Yet, they don’t work for particularly feminist organizations. Nor do they tend to have stay-at-home husbands.

What they have are two things that women elsewhere in the world would be hard-pressed to find: close-knit extended families and access to cheap household labor.

Those resources have enabled a small but powerful group to achieve progressional triumphs that might have been impossible even in liberal countries in the West.

A superwoman in India

In the West, it is unlikely for married couples to live with their parents. But life in a joint family is fairly common in India.

Post marriage, many women—even in big cities—move in with their husband’s parents, and sometimes other relatives to boot. And while Indian popular culture often portrays the typical mother-in-law as a scheming, provincial character, the reality is that these women frequently shoulder the success of India’s highest-achieving female professionals. Take the case of Naina Lal Kidwai, who retired in 2015 as chairman of HSBC India.

Arguably an idol among India’s working women, Kidwai was the first Indian woman to graduate from the Harvard Business School in 1982. When she began her career as an investment banker with ANZ Grindlays and Morgan Stanley, banks did not offer flexible hours, and she often had to go to a different floor just to find the women’s washrooms.

But at least there was trusted childcare at home.

“I think that it’s easier for us to succeed as working women in India than it is for many of our female counterparts in other parts of the world. After all, in India we have the distinct advantage of an extended family of mothers, sisters and in-laws, and house help,” Kidwai wrote in her book 30 Women in Power. “I have to admit, in those critical early stages of motherhood when relying on any and every manner of support becomes a survival strategy, I had assistance close at hand. My mother-in-law would come join us at short notice and my mother and sister, even friends, would pitch in.” 

While Kidwai began her professional journey long before India opened up its economy and ushered in jobs and prosperity, she chose to remain in her home country instead of heading for the US as her career progressed.

Priyanka Aggarwal, one of the few female partners at Boston Consulting Group in India, says it is much easier for women in intense corporate jobs to strike the proverbial work-life balance in this country.

“When I traveled (for work), my mother-in-law looked after my children,” Aggarwal, 40, told me last year. An Indian Institute of Management graduate, Aggarwal, who spent more than a decade at McKinsey & Co., easily could have moved abroad for her career. She purposefully chose not to, though.

A huge responsibility

Certainly many a career in India, and abroad for that matter, has been knocked down by motherhood. Conservative, disapproving family members have been a hurdle, too. Working mothers in India are further handicapped by lack of quality daycare facilities.

Yet, as India liberalizes and the cost of living rises, having dual-income families has increasingly become an imperative. Luckily, liberalization also has increased the ranks of modern, supportive family members willing to pitch in.

“My in-laws look after my kids during my classes and research, which takes at least six hours a day,” says Kamal Preet Munjral, 38, who is about to launch her own daycare center. “They drop and pick up my younger child from school. It is a huge responsibility. At noon, they have to be at his school. They feed my children, take them to parks, play with them. And they do all this much better than I ever could.”

Dashed hopes

A poignant but pertinent aspect of these women’s professional successes is that they often rest on the dashed hopes of earlier generations.

Often, the mothers or mothers-in-law who eagerly tend to their grandchildren are not uneducated themselves. They simply happened to come of age in an India where the idea of a working married woman was just too radical.

“My mother asked me to work without guilt and she took care of my daughter,” says Vandana Narang, director of the National Institute of Fashion Technology, New Delhi. “My mother is a post-graduate in political science and worked till I was born. But she could not continue after that. That is why she encouraged me.”

My Man Friday

While the first source of strength for this small group of successful women comes from within the family, the second is from without. And it has spawned its own economy of sorts in India.

Unlike their western counterparts, Indian middle-class professionals can afford an army of household laborers: cooks, maids, nannies, drivers.

In a country where wives are expected to do most of the household chores—Indian men are perhaps the world’s worst shirks as far as housework is concerned—multiple servants allow women to devote time and energy to their careers.

Sairee Chahal, founder of Sheroes, a website for women job-seekers, has a full-time babysitter and a driver. “I pay my baby-sitter well. But in the US, I would have had to be super-rich to do so. I feel if I had to do the career I have (here) in the US, I would fail.”

In most Indian cities, one can hire a maid for as little as Rs 1,000 ($20) a month for an hour of daily cleaning. Some families have servants and ayahs, or nannies, who have lived with them for generations.

“And then, there was support and care from that great institution in India—the ayah,” Kidwai writes in her book. “I was fortunate to have Janki—who had brought up my sister and me as kids—come back to keep an eye on our daughter, Kemaya, as she grew up.”

Smita Sahay has worked for two decades in the banking and financial services sector. For most of that time, she has had the help of the same servant.

“I would not have worked if Monty was not around. He is my Man Friday. And he treats my kids as his own and scolds them when he has to,” she says.

Sahay pays 35-year-old Monty Rs 15,000 a month, and takes care of his food and living expenses. “I paid for his wedding. He has his own quarters. I will educate his kids. I paid for his wife’s beautician training. But then, he is part of my family.”

Family vs outsider

Yet, there is a veritable difference in the attitude working women have towards these two groups that have played such important roles in their careers.

While family members mostly enjoy their complete trust, wariness frequently defines their approach to maids and servants.

“I have a maid, too, but I never leave my kids alone with her. One of my in-laws is always around,” says Munjral.

Swethaa S. Ballakrishnen, a sociologist at New York University in Abu Dhabi, says working mothers who do not have families to look after their children worry more about not being a “good parent.”

“While tasks such as cooking, cleaning, washing dishes, doing the laundry, driving the employer to work were in line with caste-dependent expectations of servitude, being the primary caretaker of a child introduced some problems to this reliance,” Ballakrishnen notes in a research paper analyzing the home lives of hundreds of Mumbai professionals who work at banks, law firms, and consulting firms.

She summarizes the sentiment in an interview: “If my mother takes care of my child, it ensures the child will speak in English and be socialized in the way I was.”

Last year, Quartz interviewed dozens of women who graduated from India’s best engineering colleges, the Indian Institutes of Technology, in the 1990s. Almost all of them gave up corporate careers following motherhood, mainly because they could not find nannies who met their expectations.

The women in this story are the luckier ones.

This Quartz story originally appeared on Quartz India and on on April 7, 2016.