Why women are expected to pursue jobs – not careers

only a handful can get hand-held for CXO roles. But for their male counterparts, informal mentorship happens all the time. Photo: Bloomberg
only a handful can get hand-held for CXO roles. But for their male counterparts, informal mentorship happens all the time. Photo: Bloomberg


Career success for a woman is almost like a hidden vault: very few have made it there, their struggles remain mostly private and this often translates to fewer lessons trickling down to others.

My first promotion, I celebrated with colleagues who were mostly in a similar age group and had also received their promotion letters. Giddy with excitement, a few of us thanked our seniors and super-seniors. It then seemed par for the course. But now, when I recall the moment, those of us who went on a thanking spree were all women.

The men who were in the same group did not offer ‘thank you’s, at least not visibly. There was a sense of achievement among all of us, but while some of felt grateful, others accepted their promotions as a natural outcome of all their efforts.

We were only in our early twenties, but our outlook towards acceptance of rewards and recognition had already developed sharp divergences—by gender.

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“I am recognized in my field, there is a sense of relief when it happens. But then the time taken to prove oneself is so consuming, that participating in chapters of medical associations or networking takes a backseat," said a Mumbai-based doctor who did not want to be named. The result is that while her male counterparts have elaborate networks to push their candidacy for jobs, invitations and other professional rewards, the Mumbai-based doctor must rely only on her resume to get attention. And sometimes, even the best in their field need positive word-of-mouth to get their candidacy through.

After more than two years of the covid pandemic, there is a renewed focus among recruiters on hiring more women, as their numbers are declining on employment payrolls. Multiple factors are responsible for this, including challenges of work-from-home and efforts to get children back to their academic routines after a sustained phase of online schooling. In general, we have seen fewer women return to work.

But what often goes unnoticed is that while getting women onto payrolls meets the recruiting company’s diversity quota, there is very little effort devoted to outlining for women employees the difference between a job and a career.

Holding a job provides financial independence and professional validation. It comes with its challenges, but to transform a job into a career requires mentoring, upskilling and competing. And in the case of women, a career usually also needs the backing of many stakeholders.

A senior executive in a media company once got a call from her son’s school about an early closure for that day. She left the meeting, rushed to pick up her son from school, and later found out that the school authorities had called all mothers first. Only in her absence was the next guardian, such as the child’s father, alerted.

“I left an important meeting and travelled 25km to pick up my child, when my husband’s office was a similar distance away," she said the next day. Yes, she could have called the father or school and could have coordinated the pick-up better, but instances like these highlight how everyone around, right from one’s family to schools and businesses, often allow and sometimes encourage women to drop the career ball.

Too often are women expected to pursue jobs rather than careers. That a career is meant only for a few ‘fortunate’ ones is a belief ingrained right from the start. That credit for success needs to be shared with one’s entire village and largely deflected from oneself pushes many of us to believe that our success is largely due to ‘luck’, which is fickle; hence, less spoken about.

I was in Ameerpet, Hyderabad, a few months ago to write about one of India’s largest coaching hubs. The streets thronged with engineering graduates aiming to upskill themselves and get better jobs. Quite a few of the young women said they had to struggle to get money from their parents, as the assumption was that a degree followed by a job in a tech firm, which would boost marital prospects, was as far as a girl’s goals can go.

Further investment in upskilling was something many families had not factored in. But the young men I spoke to did not face similar challenges, as their success was almost like a collective goal of their families.

There are women-focused workshops and mentoring panels for middle to senior women executives, but then, stiff selection criteria and corporate sponsorships mean only a handful can get hand-held for CXO roles. But for their male counterparts, informal mentorship happens all the time.

Information about the inner workings of a company, access to power coteries and tips on salary negotiation techniques are easily available, and men often share these freely with women. It is not the after-hours ‘men’s clubs’ that make a difference; it’s just that the path to success for one’s male colleagues is relatively well-trodden. So, the secrets to success are widely known among men.

But for a woman, career success is almost like a hidden vault. There are very few who have made it there, their struggles remain mostly private, and this often translates to fewer lessons trickling down the hierarchy for others to pick up the trail. Her career goals are celebrated, but the road ahead remains elusive.

Devina Sengupta writes on workplaces and education at Mint.

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