Mukta Naik

Worldwide, women face several invisible barriers in being able to get to work. In India, where women’s workplace participation is a dismal 24% and women earn only about 62% of a male counterpart’s salary, the female gender struggles with a patriarchal social structure, in which women are expected to prioritise caregiving responsibilities for children and other family members with little regard for their own needs or aspirations. In cities, lack of safety and poor infrastructure like broken pavements, inadequate public toilets and unreliable public transport make it even tougher for women to get out of the home and earn a living.

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Corporates turn a deaf ear to the flex-work conversation

Forget about the poor, a large number of educated women in India equipped with graduate and even post-graduate degrees drop out of the workforce once they have children. Corporate organisations are not amenable to changing their ways to accommodate women who wish to return to the workforce after a break in their careers, even when they have the skillsets they badly need. “I go to companies and I utter the flex word and they act like I’m cursing them!” says Sairee Chahal, Founder SHEROES India, a network that devoted itself to helping women get back to work.

In fact, the corporate sector only employs 10-12% of women workers in the country and is only one of 8 segments identified by the ‘Women at Work 2014’ report brought out by SHEROES with a view to re-contextualise the conversation around women at work to incorporate key concepts like work-life fit and stage of career. With higher costs of living and a need to remain self-confident, the pressure on urban women to work is mounting. Women therefore find many other innovative ways to enter the workspace. From home-based businesses to franchising, many women are abandoning the safe corporate space and exploring many ways to find employment.

Entrepreneurship fills a vacuum, but comes with unique challenges

Nowhere is this more evident than in secondary cities across India, where corporate opportunities never really reached women. Starting with very small investments, women in small cities make clothes, bake cakes, teach children, cater lunch for thousand people a day, run beauty salons and sell insurance policies to create businesses that make profits and generate employment. In the 8-fold classification developed by the SHEROES report, based on inputs from 50,000 women across 60 Indian cities, the Mompreneur/SMB segment comprises a significant 11% of the range of employment women opt for (as compared to a 14% in a mainstream corporate career).

Yet, women entrepreneurs find it hard to take their work seriously enough and fail to scale up their businesses. In Jaipur, a city of 3 million people located in the state of Rajasthan, Neha gave up her work as a graphic designer to design clothes for her friends and extended family. Her business started from her garage and grew to employ 20 people, 8 of them skilled craftspeople from surrounding villages. Today, her business makes profits of close to Rs 2.5 million a year. Yet Neha is unwilling to expand her business. “I need to take care of my two children and look after my in-laws, the home, all of that while I work,” she says.

It’s not just because of additional responsibilities, scaling up is challenging because women often don’t have enough support. Prabha Devi’s husband is a farmer outside of Kota, also a small city in Rajasthan. She lives in the city with her two children so that they can attend a decent private school. A few years ago, fed up of arguing with him about household expenses, Prabha sold her jewellery and started a small and informal trading business, buying and sending traditional saris and dress materials between Kota and Lucknow, where a cousin lives. Today, she wants her business to grow, but no one in her extended family, including her own father, is willing to extend her the capital. Her frustration is palpable when she says, “Not one person ever came forward to say: What a good job you’ve done Prabha! They are always telling me how I’ve let them down by becoming a businesswoman. I don’t understand it.”

Pursuing passions & using a different lens for success

It’s not always motherhood or domestic responsibilities nor even financial need that drive women to entrepreneurship though. Passion and a keen desire to be a decision maker drive women in equal measure.

During her two-year tenure as a stay at home mum, Alankritha refused to lose confidence in her extraordinary talents as a salesperson. After many years of following in the footsteps of her husband to wherever his work took him, she moved to her hometown Hyderabad where she teamed up with an uncle to launch an exciting new product. Singlehandedly managing home and work, Alankritha worked hard to set up a successful business. “The best part about being an entrepreneur is the control I have over my life. I don’t have to be apologetic to my boss about anything,” she says, pointing out how she has enjoyed being involved in myriad aspects of a business as compared to a more limiting learning curve as a corporate employee. Her husband has now quit his job to join her in scaling the business further.

In a sense, though perhaps in small measure, women with passion are beginning to redefine success and leadership. Ritu Mathur who is based in Gurgaon, a suburb of New Delhi, opted out of her corporate job in 2009 and started a small business with the idea of creating lovely plants as corporate and individual gifts. Her green thumb saw her move to garden design and landscaping. Along the journey, she saw her love for plants as a natural subset of a raging passion for healthy foods as an integral part of a move to a healthier urban lifestyle. Today, she helps plan and set up organic farms. Her husband and daughter have joined her to start Grainny’s, which manufactures ready to eat healthy snacks with a focus on natural products and traditional methods of production. Ritu’s business is growing at the pace that she is comfortable with. For her, its not the top line or bottom-line; rather, shared values are the measure of success. “I don’t want to be in the rat race. People who believe in what I do and find a connection, they don’t go away,” she says. In this way, she believes she is contributing to society even as she pursues her passion.

This exciting entrepreneurial space needs a structured policy push

Hearing these and many other stories from women entrepreneurs, I think about the relationship between adversity and success. There is no doubt that women in business need considerable external support and encouragement from their families as well from institutions outside their homes to succeed.

At present, efforts are in half measures and structure is lacking. While organisations (mostly private sector and not-for-profits) have tried to help through skilling initiatives and technical support, the policy route goes nowhere. “Everything that is happening is coming from non-structured, entrepreneurial spaces and that is exciting, but it takes longer and it isn’t enough,” says Sairee, ruing the lack of a vision for a business policy that makes it easier for entrepreneurs to flourish. While social attitudes towards women will take their time to change, it seems to be that removing obstacles to entrepreneurship could be the best way to draw more women into the workspace and a significant step towards empowering them.


Banner photo by Peter van der Sluijs

Photo 1 by Zimbres

Photo 2 by Balamurugan Natarajan



Categories: Entrepreneurship, Gender, Identity, Livelihoods