Why Indra Nooyi’s Work-Life Comments Are Important to Asian American Women

BlogHer Original Post

PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi is the latest female executive to chime in to the never-ending discussion about balancing work and life.

At the Aspen Ideas Fest last week, Nooyi shared some insights into how she wrestles with a demanding career and being a mother. What stood out to me about Nooyi’s comments — aside from her brutally honest confessions — is that we are seeing a woman of color, in particular, a South Asian immigrant — join in this discussion in such a public way.

PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi speaking at BlogHer '11, Image Credit: Asher Sears photography/BlogHer

Some of the challenges Nooyi faces are those that any woman in a demanding career would encounter, such as feeling guilty about missing the weekly coffee chats with the principal of her daughters’ school. I don't agree with all of Nooyi's "coping mechanisms," such as asking the school office for a list of other mothers who did not meet for coffee, but I also felt her life was in many ways a larger-than-life example of the difficulties we all face in meeting all the demands of office and home.

The anecdote that caught the most attention on the Internet, or at least on my Facebook page, was Nooyi’s story about an encounter with her mother. Nooyi has just been appointed president of PepsiCo, and she arrived home at 10 o’clock at night to share the news. Her mother, who lives with the family, greeted her in the garage and asked her to buy milk, even though Nooyi’s husband had been home for two hours. In a transcript by The Atlantic, Nooyi recounts:

"So like a dutiful daughter, I went out and got the milk and came back. 

I banged it on the counter and I said, 'I had great news for you. I've just been told that I'm going to be president on the Board of Directors. And all that you want me to do is go out and get the milk, what kind of a mom are you?' And she said to me, 'let me explain something to you. You might be president of PepsiCo. You might be on the board of directors. But when you enter this house, you're the wife, you're the daughter, you're the daughter-in-law, you're the mother. You're all of that. Nobody else can take that place. So leave that damned crown in the garage. And don't bring it into the house. You know I've never seen that crown.'”

Ouch.

I was furious when I read this account. Furious that a woman who immigrated from India reaches this rarified position and is not supported in her own home. At first, I hesitated to comment on this aspect of Nooyi’s story, for fear of implying that all Asian cultures are sexist or overly traditional. Certainly not all all Indian or Asian American families are misogynistic. But Asians are the U.S. racial group most likely to live in a multigenerational household. According to 2012 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 28 percent of Asian Americans live in a home with two or more generations of adults, which in some ways sounds like a great support system for working parents, it but can create complications, too. This is an example of the way the balance of work and family might be affected by our race or ethnicity and something to keep in mind in our increasingly diverse nation.

Watch Indra Nooyi’s interview and then tell us your thoughts about in the comments.

News and Politics Editor Grace Hwang Lynch blogs about raising an Asian mixed-race family at HapaMama.

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