Balancing culture and career

18 August 2016 | Story Kate-Lyn Moore. Photo Michael Hammond.
Dr Ameeta Jaga realised that her doctoral research mirrored her own life in profound ways: as a South African Indian woman who feels the pull of many roles and responsibilities.
Dr Ameeta Jaga realised that her doctoral research mirrored her own life in profound ways: as a South African Indian woman who feels the pull of many roles and responsibilities.

Dr Ameeta Jaga always regarded herself as a liberated Indian woman. But once she delved into the literature of culture and the work–family interface, she became aware of the many ways in which that was less true.

“On reflection, my subservience surprised me. I realised that from an early age I had seen my mother assume multiple familial roles – being a mother, wife, daughter-in-law, hostess to guests – and executed them all dutifully to near perfection. I assumed I had to do the same.”

These are the sorts of cultural and social roles that Indian women may confront and that are often incongruous to the roles and expectations that are demanded from them in the contemporary workplace.

Jaga's doctoral research on work–family conflict within this community provided much needed insight into the experience of these women and the tension they experience through their career.

I've had to fight the traditional pattern quite hard growing up: not being the stay-at-home wife and mother, rather wanting to have an active career,” she says.

Jaga encompasses a series of stark contradictions, all wrapped up in one rather petite person. Unlike many young women in her neighbourhood, her education and her agency were emphasised throughout her upbringing.

She went from being an artist to performing as a classical Indian dancer. She then turned corporate climber, before finding her way into academia full-time. Jaga is now a senior lecturer in organisational psychology at UCT.

An unexpected predilection

Jaga took to the topic of work–family conflict in ways she did not expect.

“It started opening up multiple lenses,” she says, and prompted her to think critically about how gender, culture and socialisation were playing out in her own home.

When Jaga began her research on the work–family interface for her master's degree, it was an entrée into the work–family space and cemented her resolve to work with Professor Jeffrey Bagraim. Over time, the topic became immeasurably meaningful to her.

She noticed that almost all the work–family research was based on American models and was conducted in developed countries. Jaga recognised the need to develop contextually nuanced models to capture the experiences of culturally distinct samples.

“For me the exciting part of being at UCT is that I get to research this, which is really what my life's about. That sort of constant negotiation between culture, gender, work, family: that interface.”

A white American sample

It is not only the research that is based on American models, but South African management practices too. These are often based on ill-fitting white middle-class American samples that prioritise individual achievement and reward. There is no alternative lens through which to recognise the communities in which these management practices are actually implemented.

Such practices do not take the added pressures of employees from diverse cultural contexts into consideration (through familial or community roles and responsibilities). Such pressures add to conflict both at work and at home.

The result is that those who excel within this model mirror the white American sample. South African management therefore often continues to perpetuate prejudiced organisational values and practices.

Dismantling the patriarchy

Within these mainstream models, notions of female responsibility to provide caregiving remains unchallenged.

“Our stats still show that women are doing the majority of the caregiving,” Jaga explains.

She recognised aspects of this in her own life. Her inherent curiosity stems out of this awareness, as does her motivation to contribute to locally developed and culture-sensitive work–family practices and policies.

Jaga maintains that organisations will never be able to retain diverse cohorts of employees, particularly at these managerial levels, if formal policy as well as informal institutional culture is not critically reassessed.

“How can you prevent these women and people of diversity from feeling so completely overwhelmed that they land up resigning?” she posits.

“Organisations can help women progress in their careers by supporting fathers – so that they may engage with both their work and family responsibilities. This will help neutralise the idea that caregiving is the exclusive preserve of women.”

“When domestic responsibilities are more equally shared, more women will be better able to make a greater contribution in the workplace.”

Organisations need to understand that with diverse teams come diverse value systems, family and community commitments. Employees have complicated home spaces. If there is an understanding of this within their workspace, then employees will be much happier both at home and at work.

“So a lot of the work–family research shows that if employees are able to contribute to their family lives in the way that they want to, they are going to reciprocate by being more loyal, more productive and less absent in their workplace.”

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