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With heads held high

Women must take pride in professional success rather than feel guilty about it

A week ago, I was sharing with a friend my experience as a married woman of colour pursuing a doctoral study in the U.S. I remember telling him that I could not have achieved success in my academic journey without my husband’s support.

My friend, who is also married, in turn, shared his experience as an international doctoral student and the challenges he overcame.

As I was walking back home, I was struck by the difference in the personal narratives of my friend and mine. My family was my cheerleader and played a pivotal role in all my achievements. He was his own cheerleader who achieved success primarily by dint of merit.

In her book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg draws attention to how women often tend to ascribe their success to external factors such as luck, family support and hard work, while men speak of internal skills and talent. In an interview to Harper’s Bazaar, actor Deepika Padukone credits her stardom to destiny and luck among others. Her spouse, Ranveer Singh, in an interview to Elle, credits his success to grit and determination. Yet again, the difference in their narratives is hard to ignore.

So, what is it that makes women uncomfortable with taking responsibility for their hard-earned success, a trait which comes so naturally to many men? When I was getting married seven years ago, my parents were ecstatic that my husband’s family was “supportive” of my desire to work and study after marriage. I was continuously reminded of this privilege by friends, family and even colleagues. The more success I achieved at the professional front, the stronger these reminders became. In a much-quoted interview within Indian households, Indra Nooyi talks about her mother’s reaction when she came back home after being named the president of PepsiCo. Her mother first asks her to get milk, reminding her that while she may be the president of PepsiCo, “When you step into this house, you’re a wife and mother first. Nobody can take that place. So leave that crown in the garage.”

Crown in the garage

But why should anyone leave in the garage a crown they worked so hard for? What harm could possibly come out of strutting around with the crown in the living room for a while or even the whole day? And most important, why does the sight of a successful woman often elicit insecurity and discomfort?

A study conducted by Lindeman, Durik and Dooley from Northern Illinois University in 2019 entitled “Women and self-promotion: a test of three theories” revealed that women experience greater discomfort talking about their achievements than men because of the “fear of how other people might perceive and react to them”. Gender stereotypes dictate that women should behave modestly and the problem with internalising such an exaggerated model of humility is that often, women end up carrying this discomfort with self-promotion into their workplace. A study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2019 further revealed that women tend to provide less favourable self-assessment of their performance at workplace than men. The research draws attention to the huge gap between male and female respondents when it comes to self-promotion, a skill of immense importance during job interviews and annual reviews. No wonder then that despite sustained efforts towards ensuring gender parity, women continue to be under-represented in positions of leadership across the globe.

Most professional women I know are already racked with enough guilt and do not need constant reminders about maintaining a work-life balance by those around them. And most important, to all those women who have worked tirelessly to win their crowns, you don’t have to leave your crown in the garage.

rsaini3@terpmail.umd.edu

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2020 7:07:16 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/with-heads-held-high/article30829727.ece

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