What's Holding Back Women Entrepreneurs?

Women themselves need to take the onus for representing their own sex in business domains by becoming more participatory, daring, and by being unafraid to aim high

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To my way of thinking, there is no simple answer to the question that preoccupies business journalists and entrepreneurial leaders alike: What is holding women entrepreneurs back? As a culture we are accountable.


What Girls and Boys are Good at?

In the entrepreneurial space, just as in domestic, institutional, social, and political territories, women and men (or girls and boys) are perceived and treated differently. Indeed, in the Indian subcontinent's tradition, children of each sex are socialized in divergent ways, with separate sets of qualities and values held in good esteem for each gender. There is a clear binary that our cultural inheritance arranges the genders into, and in this system, men are necessarily superior to women.

It is biological essentialism that is responsible for social prejudice directed against women. The idea that women are better suited for work within the home has successfully been altered in the minds of a significant segment, including the burgeoning middle-class. Human history, with its centuries of practice at gender segregation and stratification, is responsible for this belief system that has always given men an arbitrary advantage over women. What we need to get at are convictions that perpetuate the myths that women are poor at risk-taking, do not understand the workings of corporate finance, or are simply not independent enough to run their own businesses.

What Gendered Socialization Means in Business

The upshot of this gender-specific socialization stretches into employment and entrepreneurship fields. According to a recent Wall Street Journal piece, only 27 percent of Indian women are part of the national labour force, and as low as 14 percent of all business owners are women. Again, in businesses run by women, 90 percent of all employees are women; this is inclusive of women-owned businesses that are also single-employee units. (96% of the Indian male workforce has jobs in business ventures run by other men). Businesses led by women are less focused on growth than those managed by men. A poll conducted by leading Indian news daily in partnership with MSN corroborates this.

When you take a discerning look at businesses owned and run by women, you can't miss the fact that most women entrepreneurs across the globe start businesses out of necessity rather than to respond to opportunity. The classic example is that of a developing nation woman entrepreneur who sets up a beauty salon or a dressmaking shop or a meal delivering unit. Women also take out smaller amounts in business loans, a Fundera study shows, and have fewer chances to be mentored as opposed to men (the non-profit giant Catalyst has established this in a 2011 research project). This last is because there are fewer women still in leadership positions than women, who at senior executive levels begin to experience the limiting glass ceiling effect. Male leaders continue to display covert sexism by choosing male proteges to hone, time and again, over females.

These are discouraging statistics, given that we have lived nearly two decades in the twenty-first century, a majority of the world's people have the choice to harness the power of technology to positive ends, and globalization and the internet revolution have happened. There has been some policy reform as well to empower women entrepreneurs. The 1990 National Commission for Women safeguards the legal entities of women in all spaces, including in places of business. Again, in 2001, the National Policy for the Empowerment of Women is committed to "changing societal attitudes" about women, and allaying all forms of discrimination against women. In an interview with Business Line, Hina Shah, Founder and Director, International Centre for Entrepreneurship and Career Development, lamented that despite government schemes in place to draw more open out into entrepreneurship, few women access these opportunities.

What We Can Do to Make a Change

Bringing women in larger numbers out into the entrepreneurial arena will need the active participation of the women who are already in positions of influence. They have the responsibility to encourage and warrant women from all classes and backgrounds to develop their own ventures. They can do this by leveraging their skills, experience, money, time, and networks to create a level playing field for both genders in business.

Larger society will need to assume the still-humongous task of developing a culture of gender equality, attack structures that confine women, and develop robust systems in their place that will let women share in work outside the home. This new environment will have to make room for not just thousands of women entrepreneurs, but those who will counsel them, invest in their ventures, and work for them.

What Women Can Do

Women themselves need to take the onus for representing their own sex in business domains, by becoming more participatory, daring, and by being unafraid to aim high. Every event of business success achieved by a woman is nothing short of a leap for the collective of India's women. With increasingly broadening scope for women to get an education or vocational training, the time has come for women to seize the day.