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Sheryl Sandberg’s advice on career and marriage is outdated, say  millennial women. Photo: Bloomberg
Sheryl Sandberg’s advice on career and marriage is outdated, say millennial women. Photo: Bloomberg

Opinion: Is finding the right partner still the most important career decision for a woman?

Asking a woman to pick the 'right partner' in order to have a successful career is a bit outdated

The most important career choice you’ll make is who you marry," said Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, while sharing her experiences with young women at a 2011 conference in New York City. Former Axis Bank MD and CEO Shikha Sharma echoed Sandberg’s belief when she spoke of choosing the right partner in her convocation speech at Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, in 2017: “It is a cliché to say that the choice of a life partner is the single-most important choice you will make in your life…it is a cliché because it is true."

We ask, is it really?

A 2017 article in The Economist explores the declining trend of marriages in India: “As recently as 2005-06, 47% of Indian women in their early 20s were married before their 18th birthday. By 2015-16 the share had fallen to 27%—and just 18% in the cities." The article also finds that the institution of traditional marriage in urban India is slowly eroding in Indian society, and is moving “towards something that resembles Western marriage".

Elsewhere in Japan, where arranged marriage was the norm before World War II, the institution is almost unknown now. According to a 2015 report by Japan’s National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, by the time the Japanese turn 50, one in four men is single, as is one in seven women. It is estimated that by 2040, 40% of Japanese households will be single people. Rebecca Traister, in her book All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, found that in 2009, for the very first time in recorded history, the proportion of unmarried women exceeded the number of married women in the US. This unprecedented, and telling, statistic points to a dramatic shift in society and mindsets, especially among younger women, towards marriage and accordingly, towards their careers.

Given this changing scenario, how relevant is Sandberg or Sharma’s advice for millennial women today? We asked 100 urban millennial women if they believe that finding the right spouse is linked to having a stronger career path. More than 50% of our respondents believe that their choice of partner is not the most critical career decision for them. “I agree it’s important. But it is equally important for men as well to have a partner who is encouraging and supportive," said a 26-year-old respondent. Our survey suggests that marriage at an early and “appropriate" age, is no longer a presumed condition for women today. A large majority of respondents are looking to fit their marriage into their career trajectories, and not the other way round.

Despite these early traces of changed mindsets, several women acknowledged that a non-supportive partner can create obstacles in a woman’s career. “I have a supportive partner and while it’s influenced my career choices positively, I don’t see marrying him as the most critical career decision. However, I did see that in my mother’s career, an unsupportive partner has been a critical obstacle," said a 27-year old respondent. Millennial women believe other factors contribute to successful careers—for example, more than one-third of our sample said that growing up in a supportive and encouraging environment at home is more critical than their choice of partner when it comes to forging a successful career. Close to 15% thought “being guided by the right mentor" and another 13% said “acquiring the right skill-set" (13%) were more important than the choice of a spouse.

This small segment is acutely aware of the challenges previous generations of women have faced. But they are committed to changing their own trajectory and for now, are sure that their careers will shape their lives more than their personal choices.

While the above trend deepens, there is still overt and subtle pressure from several quarters—parental, societal and even peers—on young women to “settle down". Often younger millennial women, like women from other generations before them, find it hard to deal with this pressure. At this inflexion point, they need support, encouragement and guidance from their role models to be able to make choices that aren’t necessarily the traditional ones. They need to be encouraged to pursue a career with the same gusto that a young man is urged to.

Asking a young woman to pick the “right partner" in order to have a successful career—and not acknowledging that young women of today have a choice to marry or not marry at all—seems a bit outdated. Isn’t it time we changed the narrative?

The Millennial Girl is a column based on an online survey conducted with over 100 urban, working millennial women to uncover their attitudes and opinions about the workplace.

Anuradha Das Mathur is founder and dean of the Vedica Scholars Programme for Women, and a Yale Greenberg World Fellow 2016. With inputs from Mohini Gupta.

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