Prime Minister Narendra Modi while addressing the nation on the 75th anniversary of India’s independence from the Red Fort on Monday underscored that empowering women is crucial for the growth of the country, which is currently in the decade of digital revolution and innovations.
Modi said: “Be it education or science, women of the country are at the top…Be it sports or battlefield, India’s women are stepping forward with a new capability and confidence.”
“I see the immense contribution by women in 25 years to come, much more than that in the 75-year journey,” he noted.
His Independence Day speech also included the major factors which emerged as the wheels of India’s growth vehicle. These include technological innovations, as well as startups from tier 2 and 3 cities.
It is believed that participation from more women, in all these fields, will boost the growth of the country, while India is projected to be the world’s 3rd largest economy in the next 10 years.
But many believe that there is a gender divide and it also exists in the flourishing startup ecosystem.
To look at the big picture and understand women’s participation graph, as well as how women leaders are equally capable of taking a company to its peak or transforming it into a unicorn, ultimately helping India to be at its best, News18 has spoken to a few female leaders from various industries.
Understanding the gender divide
Anjali Rawat, co-founder and director of Design Thinking, Digital Dogs Content and Media, and Misbah Quadri, founder of Monofys Media, both believe that this issue still exists in a lot of large-scale national and multinational companies in the country.
As per Rawat, the gender divide starts with “culture, outlook and Indian value system of looking at and treating women with special feelings” such as extra respect, extra care, and extra concern.
“Many roles, especially those thought to require ‘extra’ effort and sacrifice are not even open for women. In our quest to be extra nice, we have ended up being extra discriminatory. It isn’t easy to change this soon,” she explained. “Mere activism won’t alter it completely. The time it needs to change over a generational value system is required, I suppose.”
She highlighted the fact that businesses do not make gender distinctions and neither markets nor customers do. According to her, the distinction comes from within — boardrooms, cap tables, and career decisions.
Similarly, Quadri said that a male and a female employee with the same academic qualifications and skill set are usually not compensated at the same level because a male leader is almost always paid more.
“This stems from the fact that the image we picture as a ‘leader’ is that of a man. A woman with the same designation and authority is considered to be a bully while the man is labelled assertive,” she added. “Pay disparity and perspective inequality are the real catalysts of the gender divide in the Indian corporate workforce.”
While describing the challenges, she stated: “I am a female founder of a startup and in this journey of setting up an organisation, after spending 15 years in the industry, has made me realise that even now, I need to constantly network with the who’s who of the market and be in the know-how of people with power if I want to make the right cut.”
Dr Divyani Sharma, who is the co-founder of the Catalyst Group, and also a mental health expert and a member of the American Clinical Psychologists Association, believes that these issues across the Indian startup ecosystem narrowed only a little in 2021 and there are several reasons for this, some of which are factual, while others may be hidden biases that have crept in over time.
“There is a lesser number of female founders in the ecosystem and we have real supply-side issues, particularly in tech, operations & sales, where the talent pool of experienced professionals is overwhelmingly male,” he said. “Then there are cases where some qualified women professionals may choose not to join a start-up, given the unpredictable work schedule and work/life balance issues.”
Amulya Kulkarni Kanade, who is the head of people operations, Log9 Materials, believes that the gender divide issue is a result of the representation of women in the workforce which translates to inequality in pay or progression.
However, according to her: “Today, companies are making conscious efforts to welcome more representation through various initiatives like returning to workforce post maternity or career break, driving focused programmes to upskill women leaders to take on larger roles through active mentoring and coaching and creating forums for women to learn and grow from each other.”
Dr Merin Liza Jacob, co-founder of Green And Beige, told News18 that according to her the gender divide is so deeply ingrained in society that it will take a great deal of awareness and education to completely eradicate it.
However, she also believes that this stark line is gradually fading thanks to many women who have been courageous enough to break these shackles and the men who have been supportive of their colleagues or significant others.
Women in startups and unicorn making
As per Dr Jacob, many startups in the last decade have featured women as the face of a company or as the driving force behind it.
“Pondering deeper reveals a level of dissatisfaction behind the traditional ways of carrying out business or product delivery that has triggered them to tread on this path less travelled. This has created a huge change in the way businesses have evolved to see products having a more nurturing touch to it and businesses become more all-inclusive,” she said. “With both genders having a role to play now with businesses, especially the new startups that are predominantly women-led, there is clearly a balanced approach that has seeped into businesses.”
Kanade from Log9 also has a similar view regarding the importance of women in the ecosystem, as she clearly stated that female forces play a critical role in “building and scaling organisations”.
“The representation of women surely role models and encourages more women to join the startup ecosystem that is considered fast-paced and challenging. Women in startups strengthen ‘inclusion’ as a cultural anchor”, she noted.
Rawat from Digital Dogs Content and Media said that women across the world and also in India are leading from the front “when it comes to starting up”. Citing the new entities which were formed in the last five years that have women founders or co-founders, she said that “it is encouraging to see women leading this and not merely supporting it”.
Quadri cited a study according to which only 15% of the Indian unicorns have at least one female founder while the funding raised by startups founded only by women is also stated as being negligible.
“This is a very dark picture to look at,” she stated while pointing out the fact that neighbouring China has 70% of the world’s most successful women entrepreneurs.
“We are making a dent in the glass ceiling recently with three of our women making it to the global Hurun list of women self-made billionaires but I think the number is too low vis-à-vis our population,” Quadri stated.
Push for more women in the ecosystem
Quadri believes that while women continue to bear the brunt of societal pressures, even in the most modern setups, the surrounding situation is changing and mindsets are evolving.
But she claimed that the pace at which it is happening is still pretty sluggish. So she suggested a collective effort across every stratum of the society if India wishes to see more female founders and female leaders coming up.
Additionally, Quadri said: “Professional workshops must be organised and encouraged by the Indian government free of cost across all levels, at regular intervals in order to provide women with the right business acumen so as to not allow themselves to get economically deflated at the cost of a poor business decision.”
Dr Sharma from Catalyst Group, which has an employee ratio of 80% women and 20% male, said that more women in the tech sector will help address the issues women face and it can lead to more women tech entrepreneurs.
According to her: “Extending digital knowledge, access and providing connected devices to lower income females will be impactful. Regulations should be placed to have companies introduce a minimum quota for women hired. Tax incentives should be given to companies in the tech sector who support greater gender equality.”
Furthermore, Dr Sharma noted that boardroom representation of women has to be increased to give more leadership roles to women.
“Women entrepreneurs are discriminated against when seeking loans and investments. There must be a concerted effort to have more women on the corporate boards of banks and venture capital firms, to mobilise funding for women entrepreneurs,” she said.
Kanade from Log9 put forward the facts that helped not only her but also others personally and professionally.
She urged women to start with the word “I”, as she stated that “the determination to carve your own path is the beginning and the rest, as they say, becomes history”.
Secondly, she talked about the “power of networking” and “a woman backed by her own tribe of women who can stand tall, clap for each other and fix each other’s crowns”.
While pinpointing “advocacy through sponsorship/mentorship”, she suggested having “a person who can always call out your name in a room full of opportunities”. Lastly, she advised to “pay forward the experience to help and shape other women who are passionate and aspirational”.
Dr Jacob believes that the more people will talk about successful women leaders, their struggle stories, men who supported their female colleagues and leaders who noticed the passion in those women as well as the possibilities, the more people will try to look at the bigger picture, avoiding the gender bias.