The World Economic Forum‘s (WEF) Global Gender Gap index 2017 has jolted the Indian working sector policy pundits to levels of introspection and may well prove to catapult us into the ‘Indian Century.’ We skidded 21 places to rank 108, making us lower in the pecking order than the neighbouring Bangladesh (ranked at 47), Maldives (106), and China (100). Analysts say this is predominantly because of the low participation of women in the workforce, coupled with low (and even zero) wages for the ‘fairer’ sex.
India’s female labour force participation (FLFP) rate has remained stubbornly low with the ILO ranking it as one of the lowest in the world. In 2013, India had the lowest FLFP rate in South Asia, with the exception of Pakistan. The participation rate of rural women decreased from 26.5% in 2009-10 to 25.3% in 2011-12 (usual status definition), while the rate for urban women increased from 14.6% to 15.5% over the same period. So, what we have here is a picture that is not very encouraging for women at work, but which, when seen in context of a developing and growing India, offers a way out, if we choose to take this as seriously as the situation demands and cries out for.
No step too small, or too late
One way forward for the progression of both women and the national economic growth is entrepreneurship. Although at present there are not a large number of women entrepreneurs, this is a growing trend, with participation in small and medium enterprises expected to double in the next five years or so. With about only a total of 14% women entrepreneurs in India, as per the Transforming India Initiative (TII), the challenge before us is indeed immense. No step is too small, or too late. The number of women entrepreneurs in the non-farm sector and the MSME sector continues to grow. Many others lead influential nonprofits and social businesses.
On the macro, polity level too, the heart seems to be in the right place. In fact, as far back as 1991, the Government of India prepared a new Small Enterprise Policy titled “Policy Measures for Promoting and Strengthening and Supplementing Small, Tiny and Village Enterprises.” However, there still exist many economic and social barriers, including lack of mentorship, credit facilities or spousal support. The malaise, and its cure, therefore, lies within the superstructure of business, economics, society, and gender sensitisation.
Family at the centre
There is a strong reason why women begin their own businesses in the SME and Micro Level Enterprises sector. Studies in the West suggest that in general the motivation for women is not much different than men, and is rooted largely in push factors, such as dissatisfaction in the labour market and the need for greater income, and pull factors such as autonomy and independence, personal satisfaction and achievement. The same seems to hold true for women in the Indian scenario too. Writes Professor Bruce Hiebert in the foreword to the book ‘Unveiling Women’s Leadership: Identity and meaning of leadership in India’: “Given that traditionally the home was the basis of women’s entrepreneurial action, it shouldn’t be surprising then that the home is still the location for much of women’s entrepreneurial action.”
However, what is different for women entrepreneurs in India is that she usually has family at the centre of her universe-professional and private. Ima Keithel, the local market run by women in Imphal is one such example of an intertwining of family and entrepreneurship. It is not rare to see young women selling goods with their mothers and even grandmothers. The entrepreneurial success through self-help groups leads to evolving relations with their own families and the village community, giving such women more say in both family decision making and even community politics.
It is important for the government, developmental and educational sectors to encourage entrepreneurship amongst women with this insight. Indian women are scripting their own story, creating a tapestry of interconnected systems, in which their business is not seen as a separate economic entity, but as a mutually connected system to their family unit and their own gendered role in society.
Dr. Payal Kumar is Professor, School of Management, BML Munjal University)