To have or not to have- is there an option?

27 April 2022

Executive MBA (Warwick) participant Sandar Hla explores whether women can have the career and family, and how the post-pandemic world may be supporting women's mission to have it all. 

“You will have to choose. A career or a personal life. There isn’t any in-between. Look around you: we either married older-in-life and never had children; divorced, or are still single, married to a career with a finite end.”

That advice was given to me 15 years ago by a woman leader in a male-dominated institution where we both worked.

I thought that I was different. But today, those words proved to be prophetic. Stinging.

There are times where I wonder what happened?

Could it be my parents’ constant brainwashing never to talk to boys, never to have boyfriends until I graduated from university? Then in my 30s asked why I never spoke to boys, and never had boyfriends?

Digging into my subconscious, I remember the disappointment I felt when I learned of yet another classmate from my elite all-girls boarding school dropping out of the workforce after marriage to raise kids, after years of hard work fighting to even the career playing field. Instead of beating the gendered competition, she married it.

I judged other women for the choices they made for not choosing a career, just as I got judged by women in social situations for not having children. Without children, what else would two female strangers talk about? The uterus and what we do with it (or don’t) is a powerful, critical force.

Over the years, my mother’s brainwashing switched from boyfriends to freezing my eggs. And with the wonders of modern medical science, I thought that the options would always be there to fight mother nature, to become my own self-sufficient one-woman band of fertile eggs, until I realised that having it all as a woman for me was a mirage. Abandoning biological motherhood would become an involuntary choice, after hearing of my friends’ tales of endless tears, injections and hormonal chaos. I knew that I wasn’t strong enough to raise a child solo or bold enough to sacrifice and devote myself to something of myself but external. Mothers and working mothers are the hero protagonists in the story which I will never tell. And yet the story still needs reshaping and retelling for the message to be acknowledged in the workforce.

Combing through HBR, the New York Times, Forbes, and the mercy of my search engine algorithms to figure out how a woman can have it all, I was advised to lean in or lean back or eat chicken soup for the woman’s soul. It was all confusing because it seemed as if collectively, we were creating an image of monolithic success where wombs and board rooms were interchangeable. The era of the celebrated female Stakhanovite hero-worker Pasha Angelina never passed.

Yet, since 2021, it seems as if real change might be happening in the workplace, not just for working mothers given the ability to work flexibly, but good news in general where work can revolve around life rather than the other way around. Catalysed by COVID-19 and the world turning upside-down, the world order has recalibrated and shifted so women CAN have it all: boss-lady, mother, entrepreneur-founder while being authentic, not apologising and not having to model male behaviour to get ahead or noticed. Various debates unfold about the (de)/merits of gender quota systems in various institutions from universities to Board rooms or gender-lens investing, along with the need for more support from family, employers, government, society, ourselves.

Moving from burning bras to the Me-Too movement, it seems as if progress has been made but more still needs to happen with gender parity, the gender pay gap and the visibility of women in tech and science. In the movement towards diversity and inclusion, we are simultaneously talking about “generous maternity leave” while more employers are more openly offering leave for mental health, menopause and funding for IVF treatment.

The jury is still out but I believe the future looks brighter where women can redefine our own ‘having it all’ scenario.

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