Can women do it all…Should they do it all?
By Saumya Seth and Sanya Seth
With Women’s Day recently celebrated, it was the season to receive emails and messages celebrating the wonderful accomplishments of women. And while it was great to receive discount coupons for shopping, it’s important to think about what these messages are really saying about women. By celebrating and quoting the strong and powerful women who have achieved so much, are we trying to reinforce unrealistic expectations of what a perfect ‘woman’ should be? Is refraining from sacrificing too much and choosing to focus on one task at a time instead of trying to multitask an indication that she is any less worthy of being a woman?
As I sit here writing this, I am reminded of a conversation I had with a family member a few days ago. While browsing through the news headlines, I came across a tweet exchange between Malala Yousafzai and her husband. Reacting to this, many people commented on the similarities between her life and that of other women around the world, despite her winning a Nobel Prize. And while I was reading those aloud to my not so avid listeners in the room, my relative made a casual comment: “Even if she is a Nobel Prize winner, she should be able to manage both her professional and personal life perfectly – that’s what women are supposed to do!” My first thought was: Who decided this? If it isn’t a law, why do we blindly follow it? The answer is simple – women take it as a given, and those who do it of their own accord then judge those who don’t. This makes it a social expectation, perpetuated by the very society that women are a part of. Due to the widespread presence of such a thought process, this inclination to multitask and be the ‘master’ of all trades, especially among/for women, has a formally coined name “the superwoman syndrome.”
As per Sigma Beta Phi,
“The superwoman syndrome is the perception that one must be perfect in all things: perfect on the job, at home, in one’s body image, in one’s relationships, etc. and it is exacerbated by other social pressures.”
And when women all over the world start to become fascinated by this modern conundrum, where the desire for social acceptance trumps any option between being a successful corporate queen or a domestic goddess, they attempt to be accepted as both. Then “superwoman” culture develops. And as Dante Alighieri said, “The more perfect a thing is, the more susceptible to good and bad treatment it is.” Apart from the mental and physical burden for women, this has multidimensional consequences in terms of health, society’s well-being, and the economic development of society. The primary motivation behind this article is to acknowledge and consider the socio-economic ramifications of the superhuman expectations from women and to not corner this issue as one that merely victimizes and glorifies challenges that women
experience. Due acknowledgment and consideration of such costs will help foster a progressive attitude towards women’s issues- one that equates eradication of the challenges they face with walking on the path of development and progress of the nation; thus ensuring a policy environment that is equitable and supportive for them.
The burgeoning population with increasing awareness is synonymous to the proliferation of myriad opinions regarding this theme. For instance, the Depletion Hypothesis underscores the negative impacts of developing a “superwoman” culture and envisages that women juggling numerous roles would feel more physiological stress and be less satisfied with their lives. On the other hand, according to the Enrichment Hypothesis, women who had more responsibilities would experience less physiological stress and have happier lives. Therefore, after carefully reading the existing literature, I have come to terms with the fact that no definitive response can be developed for this exigent, so-called ‘feminist’ question, which has implications across genders and economies . Instead of asserting the positive or negative connotations of this culture in order to disentangle the various conjectures, we shift our focus towards the nations where superwoman culture is required based on the classifications according to their current levels of development.
Superwoman culture is needed in developing countries in order to ensure a high standard of living. A manifestation of this concept is the remarkable growth of the Mediterranean countries, especially the South European countries. These groups of “superwomen” have combined their unpaid domestic work with growing amounts of paid work; as a result, within the households, their contributions have been crucial for the goals of “catching up” aspirations of the Mediterranean countries. This culture establishes self-sufficiency and reduces people’s reliance on government handouts or assistance schemes like housing assistance and food stamps. Thus, the burden placed on taxpayers is lessened as a result of less money being spent on social assistance programs and a redirection of funds to other economic sectors. This may result in higher economic development and better financial stability, indicating that multitasking by women makes the developing countries better off (welfare measured at the aggregate level).
On the other hand, caving into the superwomen culture, costs dearly in the context of developed countries since it decreases the productivity of the country as a whole. One underlying reason for this could be the fact that when a woman volunteers to do both housework and corporate tasks, she is essentially occupying two potential jobs, one meant for skilled labor and the other for unskilled labor. Thus, reducing employment opportunities. Additionally, although it may appear that she is able to do two tasks at once, in reality her brain is not as capable of multitasking as we think. Scientific studies corroborate the claim that multitasking can lead to a 40% decrease in productivity. This creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop and starts rewarding the brain for losing focus.
Another reason behind diminishing productivity of female labour is an extension of the previous one. The social pressure to juggle tasks and responsibilities with perfection begets anxiety, stress, and mental health problems. Therefore, there will be a major decline in the sectors depending on labor as the major input, for instance, the retail sector – due to acute shortage of the task force. It seems that our claims are subject to criticism, if we acknowledge the existence of a positive relationship between stress and productivity, we can add flesh to our argument by understanding the practical application of the “Yerkes-Dodson law”. This law states that there is an optimal level of stress that will lead to the highest productivity. Too much stress can lead to reduced productivity, while too little stress can lead to underperformance. The optimal level of stress for productivity lies somewhere in the middle. The key is to find this optimal level of stress and maintain it. Implying that women might crack it up in the incipient or beginning days or even years, and ultimately, an increase in this single factor of stress will start reaping diminishing benefits. Thus, in the long-run, there is a need to take regular breaks, plan ahead, and set sustainable, achievable goals in order to ensure that women stay within optimal stress levels.
While interacting with the above argument, an optimistic reader might reason that the negative impact on the productivity of a few sectors would be offset by the boost in business in other sectors of the economy like the cosmetics and healthcare sectors, which are direct upshots of the increased stress, anxiety, and willingness to be perfect. The frequent switching of focus between tasks required by multitasking can take a toll on the brain’s health, often leading to elevated stress levels and fatigue in women Therefore, it leads to mental breakdowns more often than can be predicted, and these burnouts take a toll on the overall physical and mental health of individuals. This increases their frequency of hospital visits and, therefore, spurring the demand for healthcare professionals and consequently expanding the total revenue of the healthcare sector. The second wave of feminism has created a desire for perfection in both work and appearance. As a result, many women are pushing themselves to their limits and experiencing burnouts, which manifest as skin ailments such as dark circles. To hide these signs of overstretching, people are utilizing a range of cosmetic products and salon services, thereby boosting the revenues of this sector and contributing to the GDP of the economy.
The trail of such arguments can be indefinite, making it impossible to determine whether the superwoman culture is beneficial or detrimental for developing and developed countries. However, in our opinion, a solution to this new-age dilemma is exigent; if not by mere research work, deliberate efforts by women to take a stand for themselves depending on their health and capabilities would be a better idea. This won’t generalize and reduce the productivity of women capable of doing both, but it will prevent people from overstretching due to societal pressure.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Saumya Seth and Sanya Seth are third-year undergraduates at Ashoka University Sonipat, where they are pursuing BSc in Economics and Finance Hons. They are International level inline hockey players and hold a degree in the South Indian classical dance- Bharatnatyam. Their articles and blogs have been published in various magazines and journals, and they are currently working on crafting their lives, such that they make for an inspiring read.