Can women have it all?

Indra Nooyi ( the Pepsico CEO) was asked whether women can have it all, and she had this to say:

“I don’t think women can have it all. I just don’t think so. We pretend we have it all. We pretend we can have it all. My husband and I have been married for 34 years. And we have two daughters. And every day you have to make a decision about whether you are going to be a wife or a mother, in fact many times during the day you have to make those decisions. And you have to co-opt a lot of people to help you. We co-opted our families to help us. We plan our lives meticulously so we can be decent parents. But if you ask our daughters, I’m not sure they will say that I’ve been a good mom. I’m not sure. And I try all kinds of coping mechanisms.”  (

Well, of course, the statement provoked reactions ranging from women who felt like they could relate to her, to people (usually men) saying sagely (and a bit condescendingly) ‘no one can have it all’ or ‘feminism should give way to humanism’.

So let me be perfectly clear at the outset. This post does not suggest that there is any community or individual for whom life is perfect. Human beings all have problems, some more pressing than others. Religious minorities and migrants face their own problems as do rich people with perfect hair. A discussion of ‘Can women have it all’ is merely a way to analyse the peculiar problems that women face.

That being said, it is a gendered question, and will have a gendered answer. I am sure there are those of you who will stray on to this post and on reading it will feel extremely offended that I have tried to do a feminist analysis of the lived reality of women. To those of you, I can not and do not wish to persuade you. Feel free to make your offended or offensive comment and move on. To those of you who are interested in this issue, let us try to analyse this question. (Spoiler alert: the answer is NUANCED).

What do we mean by this question. Well for the purposes of this post, this question means can women have satisfying work and personal lives? More particularly can they play the roles of wives and mothers (which society wants them to perform, and which they themselves often wish to perform) without compromising on their careers.

Even the most context blind ones among us know that traditionally women were required to play the roles of ‘good’ wives and mothers. Their domain was supposed to be the household. Even when they started joining educational institutions and the workforce, the expectation was that their ‘natural’ roles should get priority.  Hence, the husband’s career was often the real career, and the woman’s job was often a additional bonus of sorts.

Of course, things are different now. Labour laws have changed, and most countries have formal equal opportunity laws, even if the actual participation of women in the workforce varies considerably depending on the context. Even in industrialized countries women have their own share of workplace related issues such as sexual harassment and not getting promotions. If you look at the number of Fortune 1000 CEOs, you will find that only 5.2 % of them are women. (

There are those of you who will say that maybe women are just not good enough to produce enough CEOs, and I am not going to respond to you. I can deal with logic, but this kind of fantastic reasoning is something I really cannot counter. It is probably my small brain. My bad.

To those who recognize the equality of men and women, I guess the next step is to understand what might be getting in the way. Here I slip into the realm of the anecdotal. As a lawyer I got to witness the Indian Supreme Court’s functioning closely. I observed that the number of Senior Women lawyers is still quite small. While I was there, there were 2 women judges on the Supreme Court. Today there is only 1 out of 28.  Among the younger lawyers there are more women, and they often did argue when I was in Court. But walking through the Court and other events, I really felt like it was a male bastion. My most vivid memory of this feeling is when I went to a book reading and suddenly became aware that I was surrounded by men. (I don’t know where I picked up this tendency, but I tend to see the composition of the people that I am with in a meeting). I looked to see who the other women were, and I noticed that I was the only woman lawyer there. To complete the bitter humor of the situation, the book celebrated ‘legends in law’ and of course not one of those ‘legends’ was women. (Though I am appalled at anyone that does not consider Cornelia Sorabjee a legend).

Since this day of being the only woman at that event, I often think of what makes law (litigation) such a solidly male field. The answers to that are speculative, but I think it has its roots in the way we perceive aggression to be  a male prerogative. That is, we value a litigator who is aggressive and sub-consciously see that as a male trait. But I know that, as I speak, there are women who are struggling to make a career in litigation (quite like I hope to do). Change is, after all, incremental.

But then as I see the future, as a woman who considers herself as competent as her male peers, I wonder how it will pan out.  I will have a supportive partner who will contribute to the family as I do. It is true that a lot men are challenging gender roles and helping out their partners. That being said, the actual function of motherhood and the relationship with a child are a reality of life for all women who want a child. So I ask myself (and I imagine countless women have asked themselves) how will marriage and motherhood change me? Is it possible to remain an ambitious woman after having a child?

Some of you will roll your eyes and say, ‘Get over it’. Choose what you want. Pick motherhood. Or be a career woman. Do both and stop whining. But the question is, the average man does not face this choice between fatherhood and a career. Some fathers are deciding to be stay at home dads, and it a good development. But a lot of times, in my experience, motherhood has meant the woman’s career taking a backseat.

I also ask myself, what if there is a conflict between my partner’s career and mine? Whose job should take precedence. Should it be mine on principle. No, surely that doesn’t sound fair. Should we toss a coin? Should I follow him where ever he goes? Should he?

No I don’t spend all my time agonizing over these questions. But, there are moments when I wonder. How can I combine my love for the law, with the love I have for a family life that I want to make. I guess my answer to this question is that I will try try to have it all, even if I know the quest if futile. I know on some days I will be a good lawyer, on some a good mother, on some a good partner. Maybe some days I will hash some of those things up in trying to do it all. But I will try. In doing so I think I will be inspired by my mother, who has been a  brilliant writer, a bureaucrat and a mother all in one. She has done it all, but I am no match for her.

I do not mean to disparage women who make the choice of either being a homemaker or a career woman without a family. I think we all arrive at our own answers. Sure this problem is not as bad as dealing with chronic malnutrition or a tsunami. But it is a problem (or a dilemma, call it what you want). So yes, give us that moment. Allow us that small bit of hesitation as a society and don’t brush this under the carpet. Let women reflect on whether they have been able to have it all. Let young women agonize about whether they can. And you, dear reader, whoever you are, can try to make their paths a little easier.



One thought on “Can women have it all?”

  1. Well, did such a question bother Mary Kom? I think not. Why not? Because this question of ‘can women have it all’ is also class and culture specific. Except child bearing and breastfeeding, there is not much that men and women can not do – it is just that men do not chose to do certain things due to the social construct.

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