Is Indra Nooyi Right? Can Working Women Have it All?

It’s been true forever, yet the debate goes on. Can women successfully manage work and family life? Nooyi is far from the first to talk about the toll this juggling act requires. Women still bear the brunt of responsibility for home and children. Lower income women and single parents of necessity do it all. Even as men take on more responsibility at home and become more invested in their children, there’s still the urge – for both partners – to get out from under the home role. In The Second Shift,  by Arlie Hochschild, was published in 1989. She describes couples fighting for overtime at work (the first shift) so that they don’t have to get home first and handle the home and children (the second shift). Most of these women can’t consider not working and patch together support as needed. Lynn said:

I had lung cancer. I had half a lung removed. We lived in Framingham. George was out of the picture then. I had the lung removed and went back to work. All three kids were in college at the same time; I had to work. I had to help these kids out. Luckily, they were all good students so they all got scholarship money as well as financial aid, and some of them are still paying it off. Friends helped out, everybody was a big help when that happened. And I wasn’t laid up for that long. I remember being in the hospital for about three weeks. And when I came home my mother and my sister came to stay with me and all was well. 

The marriages Hochschild researched don’t make the news. Instead, we read about backlash against Sheryl Sandberg’s advice for women. What does she know about real family life? She can afford help. This is an excerpt from an interview with Nooyi:

“I don’t think women can have it all. I just don’t think so,” she told David Bradley, owner of the Atlantic Media Company, at the Aspen Ideas Festival earlier this week. “We pretend we have it all. We pretend we can have it all,” Nooyi, who has been married 34 years and has two daughters, said.

There are only so many hours in a week, a month, a year. None of us can be two places at once. While Nooyi’s mother expects her to put a milk run before announcing her promotion, most of the high-powered women with children that I interviewed had support systems in place in order to manage multiple roles:

Corbette, a corporate executive who has become a professor:

We had the same nanny for 19 years. She and my daughter used to travel with me up to 8 times a year, especially when I only had one child, and that for me made a huge difference, really cut down on some of my own feelings about being an ineffective parent and it was an amazing, I spoke at  a lot of conferences because of my role in the industry and so I think I became even more well known that I might otherwise have in this industry because people knew I took my children so it’s been interesting experience but the person who recruited me gave me unbelievable opportunity as I tried to make investments, to run different businesses all under the benefit of the healthcare industry. 

Phoebe, a former CFO, spoke about the difficulties faced by many women in management:

I think it’s very hard to do that [set boundaries around work hours]. I think the demands are pretty intensive and you certainly don’t do it in the middle of a deal. You’ve got to be smart about this at all times. I’m conscious of this and who’s my competition? My competition, I always think of them as someone male who has a wife, a very capable wife who takes care of all of the parenting issues and all of the household issues, and so to the extent that the woman — I am involved in parenting and to the extent that I’m running my household, that takes time and energy from the workplace. We just have to be conscious of that as a society and as employers to think about that. Is it not wonderful to have employees who can be 24/7 totally devoted to what the company needs done and doesn’t have to think about anything else.

and about the opportunities that she’s had the resources to provide for her children:


We as a family have done international trips each year and as a family we have been to Africa, we have been to China to see the total eclipse of the sun, something you should do in life that’s a spiritual experience, we have been to Scandinavia, we’ve been to London, we’ve been to quite a few places in Europe, last year we went to the Olympics. We have tried to expose our children to many different — I’ve been to Japan with Kate, I have been to Mexico, so we tried to expose them to cultures and different ways homo sapiens live on this earth and that’s pretty important thing for us to inculcate in them, I think.  We’ve had the resources to be able to do that.  I’ve worked really hard just in terms of parenting things, to make sure my children know how to interact with adult, how to entertain, how to be engaging and so they’re both that. They’re just very, very comfortable in the global world.

I’ve heard from women who have made all sorts of accommodations. Skype and video chat have become tools in relationship maintenance. One woman has her assistant put in her briefcase pages from whatever bedtime story she’s reading to her children. No matter where she is, she blocks out this bedtime break and connects with her children long enough to read to them before they go to bed.

So, in my opinion, Nooyi is right. None of us can have it all. Life involves a series of trade-offs. But that doesn’t mean compromises and trade-offs are bad things. In fact, acknowledging that real limitations exist can be tremendously liberating.  It ramps down that superwoman pressure. It allows space for enjoyment. time to enjoy those little moments that enrich our lives.

The Nooyla quote above is from Mashable. The other quote are from my book, Fifty Over Fifty: Wise and Wild Women Creating Wonderful Lives (And You Can Too!), due out in October


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