Return to Studies: Motivators and Challenges for Women Professionals in India

Return to studies_richa

About the author:
Richa Saxena is an Assistant Professor in the Human Resource Management area at IMT Ghaziabad. She is a Fellow of IIM Ahmedabad. You can contact her at: rsaxena@imt.edu; riches@iima.ac.in

On the occasion of International Women’s Day last year, Titan-owned Tanishq brand rolled #WomenOfGold – a digital ad campaign (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KOtxGK8uSCc). In this commercial a middle-aged woman is shown walking in the corridors of a college. The narrative shows that she is re-joining college leaving behind an accomplished career – just to follow her dreams. The commercial focuses on the unconventional choice made by this woman professional, breaking the assumptions of the larger society in order to be happy. In the pursuit she even chooses to stay far away from her family – the son (as shown in the ad) and the husband. The ad captures the dilemmas and aspirations of the woman professionals while being in the college after a long time.

In India, choice of ‘return to school’ for a woman after a certain stage is a complex phenomenon, especially when it involves distant stay from family for a substantial time. Indian society still views a woman’s role with a traditional lens as an ‘enabler’ for the family. Any deviation from her role as ‘enabler’ and considering her own career / development by forsaking her duties towards her husband, children or other family members is not much appreciated. The contemporary Indian woman has to always strike a balance between the competing identities – of being an ‘enabler’ in the family and a ‘career person’. Tanishq ad picks up this topical issue and presents it subtly to the audience.

In a recently published joint research done by the author, we studied a group of married professional women who opted for higher studies while staying away from their families. The main objective of research was to understand this phenomenon among women professionals who took the unconventional decision of pursuing higher education while staying away from their families including children. To understand this phenomenon and the challenges faced by them, we interviewed women who chose to do a long-duration fully-residential Management program leaving their high-profile jobs and families (including children as young as few months old in some cases) behind.

Like the lady in the ad, our respondents also asked this question many times to themselves – “Why am I doing this?” Their answers hint towards different drivers/ triggers to their decision. The first emergent driver of such decision was dissatisfaction with the current work situation which included existing job, career, supervisor, or the prospects of future growth. Most of the respondents strongly felt that the current job and the circumstances were not going to take them far in their careers hence they opted for higher studies to enhance their future prospects. Another important driver which emerged from the study was the need for skill enhancement to gain personal mastery for future employability.

Apart from the objective aspects, developing own identity was another major driver for these women professionals to opt for higher education. By choosing for higher studies, these women looked beyond the visible and objective outcomes of the career like higher salary, incentives, higher ranks etc. What appeared from the interviews was that these women might have considered higher education as one of the instruments to make their career more fulfilling and to establish their identity as a professional more firmly. Setting an example before the progeny also appeared as one of the drivers for the choice of return to college. Some of them mentioned the root for their decision as the quest for their own identity and setting a yardstick in front of their kids especially daughters. Interestingly, none of the women participants mentioned money as the motivator for their decisions.

As shown in the ad, the husband of the lady picked up cooking in her absence so that she needed not worry about the family. The women in our study also found co-operation and support from their family members including spouses, children, parents and in-laws. All of them took the decision of returning to higher studies in consultation with, and full support from their spouses. In the interviews these women mentioned about the support they received from the respective spouses in terms of sharing of the responsibility and encouragement to follow one’s heart.

In spite of support received from spouses and family members, the journey was not smooth all the times for the women who took up higher studies. Almost all of them mentioned psychological stress and guilt of being away from the family members. In fact, one of the women experienced separation from her husband because of the lack of time she could spend with her husband. Later on they reconciled. Effect on relationships, managing the workload during the program, adapting to the college life after a long period, financial dependency and strain resulting from conflicting demands on time were some of the major challenges experienced by these women participants.

Even though they faced challenges, these women participants of the study were able to successfully complete their respective academic programs and returned to their families. Almost all our respondents mentioned the study break as an opportunity to discover their untapped potential and to push themselves further to stretch their capabilities. While the promise of a better-paid job at the end of the program did not emerge as a major reason for doing the program; just like the lady in the ad for these women also the prospect of a ‘more competent me’, a more ‘professionally satisfied me’, and the possibility of enhanced personal fulfilment seemed to be an attractive pull.

Our study highlighted the paradoxical forces surrounding and shaping the lives of aspirational married professional women in contemporary India. It establishes that the same traditional society, which at times restrains the professional growth of women through its heavily gendered expectations to take care of the family first, also at times acts as a facilitator in the form of support from these women’s spouses, parents, in-laws and children.

The findings of the study indicate that if the vital emotional, psychological as well as logistical support is provided by the proximate family members, married aspirational professional women can also take the tough decisions of fulfilling their dreams by stretching themselves and reaching beyond the boundaries of the expected roles. In this light, the mentioned Tanishq commercial seems to be highly contemporary and relevant for today’s married women professionals in India. It strikes the right chord for the target audience.

 

The detailed study can be accessed from:

Saxena, R., & Bhatnagar, D. (2018). Does distance matter? A study of married Indian women professionals staying away from families to pursue higher studies. Journal of Education and Work, Vol.31 (2), 159-174. (DoI: 10.1080/13639080.2018.1433819).

 

This article presents the author’s personal views and should not be construed to represent the institute’s position on the subject.

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