Millennial Mind

Hard choice between career and motherhood

By the time Mrs Indra Nooyi, PepsiCo's first female chief executive, stepped down from her post in 2018 after a 24-year career with the company, she had boosted revenue by 80 per cent.

A powerhouse of a woman, Mrs Nooyi was open about her struggles managing a Fortune 500 company while raising her two daughters.

She often shared anecdotes from her personal life, including the night she was promoted to PepsiCo president.

Before she could break the news to her mother, Mrs Nooyi was sent out to buy milk, even though her husband and domestic helper could have run the errand.

When she returned, she slammed the milk on the counter, "hopping mad" that she had been sent out on a mundane chore on such a momentous night.

Her mother said: "When you enter this house, you're the wife, you're the daughter-in-law, you're the mother. Nobody else can take that place."

So even after a difficult day at PepsiCo, Mrs Nooyi still had to fulfil her many obligations at home to the family.

She related this anecdote as a positive learning experience that grounded her.

As a millennial woman, the story had me worried that I would need that level of dedication to be a model mum who can take care of her child while juggling a demanding career.

Women have had to make the trade-off between the demands of work and of home since the 1960s when they joined the workforce in increasing numbers.

This is still the case in 2021, leading many millennial women to shy away from motherhood and a life of unpaid and under-appreciated labour.

Globally, women have fared better than they have in the past. A PwC survey in 2015 found that Singaporean millennial women were more financially independent than their global peers and also that universally, female millennials are more confident and ambitious than any previous generation.

Despite such progress, women still have a long way to go towards true equality in the workplace.

In January last year, a Ministry of Manpower report detailed the gender pay gap in Singapore. The unadjusted median monthly salary of a woman in full-time work was 16.3 per cent less than that of her male counterpart in 2018, up from 16 per cent in 2002.

Singapore also ranked 54th on the World Economic Forum 2021 Global Gender Gap index, which evaluates countries on relative gaps between women and men based on four categories - economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment.

The wage gap is a vicious circle that leaves women with less bargaining power and incentive to continue work after matrimony and motherhood. As long as the gender wage gap exists, this affects each consecutive generation of women.

Behind closed doors, couples make several hard choices when it comes to family planning that national statistics do not always capture.

Who earns more? Who should stop working to be a hands-on parent in the crucial initial years of child-rearing?

If the woman earns less, she might face pressure to quit her job and stay home to take on the role of primary caregiver.

While critics are quick to point out that men these days are more involved than ever in domestic duties as husbands and fathers, the reality is that one parent has be the breadwinner, with a regular job to provide for the needs of the family.

Then there is the issue of unproductive labour.

Former New Zealand parliamentarian and feminist economist Marilyn Waring in her 2019 TED Talk, titled "The unpaid work that GDP ignores and why it really counts", challenges the audience's default notion that a woman is responsible for a child's every need simply because she has given birth to the child.

"How many women here have been pregnant and have had children," she asked, and hands were raised in the audience.

She said: "Some of you may have breastfed your infant, but in the New Zealand national accounts, the milk of buffalo, goat, sheep and cows is of value, but not human breast milk.

"It is the very best food on the planet, it is the very best investment we can make in the future health and education of that child. It does not count at all."

In a working mother's experience, this unproductive but invaluable work that Dr Waring refers to is the time it takes to pump milk in the office (if there are even facilities to do so) or tutor the children after coming home from work.

Who is quantifying the time and effort that women put in to perform these tasks?

Along with postnatal complications and physical strain, many older millennials find themselves sandwiched between caregiving for ailing parents and nurturing children.

As digital natives, millennials are also exposed to influencers sharing their unrealistic post-partum fitness goals or encouraging an all-natural, organic approach to raising a child.

Being bombarded with such messaging, millennial women may be made to feel like they have fallen short.

Many are vilified or "mom-shamed" for giving formula milk to their children, or chided for not weaning them off breast milk soon enough.

They may be judged for returning to work too soon after giving birth and leaving the infant in someone else's care, but taking too long to return to work is also cause for criticism.

It is hardly surprising that rather than navigate this minefield, many women are reluctant to take on the responsibilities of motherhood.

Instead of offering token concessions, such as an internal lunch talk or one-off donation to a women's rights group, on International Women's Day, it is time that companies help female employees in small but effective ways.

For instance, there must be more transparency in companies about the wage gap and the performance targets employees need to achieve.

This can be cultivated through robust mentorship programmes, bringing together top-and mid-level female managers with associates. These support networks would encourage women to assert themselves and seek better pay and portfolios.

Workplace creches should also be the norm, so that parents need not worry about having access to quality childcare near their workplaces, and can quickly attend to their children in case of emergencies.

In addition to these measures, the Government should also consider extending paid maternity and paternity leave from four to six months, and expanding school student care facilities, such as the ones currently being run by self-help groups.

A little support will go a long way in helping more women pursue a fulfilling career without having to miss out on the joys of motherhood.

As I inch towards my late 20s and early 30s, I do look forward to one day having a child while excelling in my career.

With more opportunities for working remotely and greater flexible working arrangements brought on by the pandemic, maybe things will be different in the 2020s for young women like me who want the best of both home and work.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 18, 2021, with the headline Hard choice between career and motherhood. Subscribe