At a reunion of my MBA girl batchmates a couple of years back, the conversation one evening about how we all were so mentally and emotionally “unprepared” for the corporate world as we started our careers two and a half decades back, left me thinking for a while. If girls passing out of the top premier business school of the country can look back and say that they were not prepared for they were getting into, the gap is not in their competence or intelligence. Rather it is the lack of living “data points”, role models that they can observe and learn from, or just the human compasses to guide them as they set out on their respective paths. And yes, we didn’t have these for ourselves.
Before I go any further, let me acknowledge that the realization of “not being prepared” might dawn upon us only on hindsight. When I look at my teenage kids, or for that matter all the bright young boys and girls who are knocking on the doors of their professional lives, full of enthusiasm, optimism and self-confidence, I doubt if a number of them will raise their hands to seek guidance and support at this juncture of their lives. Perhaps it is only the experience over the years that makes us differentiate between intelligence and intellect, appreciate emotional dimensions or for that matter bring in the humility to learn from others. The internet age has made it incredibly easy for people to get information of all kinds, further feeding the “know it all” notion. Yet there are some young minds open to learning and absorbing, seeking advice and following it. I have come across some myself and I see them standing out with a sense of humility, openness and learning agility that is hard to match by sheer intelligence.
Coming to the point though. As people start out on their professional journeys, they could do with some guidance and support. Here I differentiate (maybe somewhat controversially) and emphasize that women starting their professional lives need more guidance. This has nothing to do with their competence. The difference is the social context. While boys go about their careers with no doubt in their minds as to that’s what they have to do, irrespective of their competence or interest, girls on the other hand seem to be perpetually doubting themselves and seeking validation on what their purpose or priority needs to be, especially as they transition into the role of a wife, mother or care taker. Unfortunately, even up until this point, women careers are seen as “discretionary” or even “secondary”, subject to everything else around them being conducive to or allowing their professional life. If the environment does not permit, women are expected (or are themselves keen to) quit their careers and dedicate themselves to family care, which in the current context, might be more like “supervising” the household activities. Generations after generations of men and women have been wired this way, and therefore women do not make much of leaving their careers despite their interest, competence or qualifications. Let us recognize that there are multiple stages of our lives when the family needs more attention, which is a joint responsibility of man and woman, and where adjustments can be made by either (or both) to attend to those responsibilities. But there should not be an underlying assumption or expectation that women have to give up their careers by default.
I do hope that the new generation of women professionals can make this paradigm shift, moving away from the “all or none” or a tentative approach to their careers. Instead of self doubt and a feeling of “guilt”, women need to carry themselves with confidence and show their true potential. The confidence building will take some conscious effort – to hone their skills and prepare them mentally and emotionally for the corporate world, especially learning to prioritize and adapt with changing life circumstances. There are a number of women who have done this. They have thrived in the corporate world while managing their families just as well. These women can be the role models who can extend their hands to guide the next generation.
This is my message to young women out there harboring any doubts on the subject. You can have a stellar career, and just as great a family life. Learn from other women who did. Don’t make choices that seem right but do not feel right (or might just be the other way round). Else, decades later you might hear yourself saying “if I knew then……”