Editor’s Note: This month, that is January 2021, FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth is Work and The Workplace, where we invite various articles to highlight the profound changes that our workplaces may or may not have undergone and the effect that these changes have had on our personal and professional lives and ways of living in the time of the pandemic. If you’d like to share your article, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you browse the internet for the impact of the pandemic on women entrepreneurs, you will find articles dedicated to success stories and contrariwise, data on the dwindling statistics of women entrepreneurs. In the former, we witness how some determined women circumvented several hardships to stay afloat in the pandemic. For instance, the success story of celebrity chef Pooja Dhingra, who was on the verge of filing for bankruptcy but morphed her Le15 Cafe into a packaged goods business. Without undermining her struggles, we can acknowledge that a good portion of these articles narrates the stories of women engaged in the formal sector or the ones coming from a privileged milieu.
As opposed to some unfortunate stories, such as that of Aarti, who had a small online business supporting traditional artisans based in Karnataka. As COVID-19 hit, her plans of expanding went in the dump. She gradually exhausted her savings and struggled to pay her staff and artisans. Her in-laws moved in with her which added the extra burden of caregiving.
History provides testimony to the fact that any economic crisis hits women disproportionately. The COVID-19 pandemic has followed the same trail.
“Women entrepreneurs have responded to the pandemic with enterprise, agility, and optimism.”
This line is a recapitulation of a study conducted by Bain & Company. They conducted elaborate interviews with around 350 women solopreneurs and small business owners belonging to urban India. Their study has been referenced in numerous articles as they do put out some revealing statistics. 70% of women-owned businesses have been affected by the pandemic, and 90% of them hope to bounce back. It highlights several challenges faced by them such as a decline in revenue, remodeling their businesses, and increased domestic responsibility. They conclusively state how these women have surmounted all odds not only to sustain their businesses, but also absorbed newer opportunities, skills, and aptitudes in the pandemic.
While the vim and vigour of these women entrepreneurs can be attributed to women empowerment and makes us hopeful; it does not offer a circumspect view of the status of women entrepreneurship in India. The optimism of this research cannot be universalised, even for urban India. Its inadequacy resides in its reductionist research that is not divided across the various socio-economic rungs of our society. The struggles of women entrepreneurs existing at the peripheries of gender, class, caste, religion and more, need to be accounted for.
When I say the words ‘woman entrepreneur’ a standard image of a woman in formal attire may pop up in your head. It’s not just you, it’s Google as well. The definition of women entrepreneurs goes beyond that. It also involves the women setting up stalls in mandis or the rural women entrepreneurs of the cottage industry. Women entrepreneurship is diverse. And how the pandemic affected this arena cannot be represented in polarised studies such as the one by Bain & Company.
A lady that I spoke to runs the business of selling khandvi, a Gujarati delicacy, to various stores in Mumbai. She said, “I and my husband are in this business together so this is the main source of income for our family. Before the pandemic we used to sell at least 10 Kgs of khandvi daily, now we barely make it to 5Kgs per day. We survived on the ration donated by temples nearby for a good few months.”
For her, and many others like her, entrepreneurship was not about remodeling and adapting to the pandemic. It was about plain survival. With only 21% of women in the country being mobile internet users, how are these women supposed to cope with a pandemic?
A study by LEAD at KREA University surveyed 2083 women entrepreneurs across Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Odisha. One in three women-run businesses was either permanently or temporarily closed. A rather terrifying statistic states that 45% of the permanently shut businesses do not foresee themselves beginning it again. While it was predictable for businesses to suffer, the worrying factor is the gender-gap spreading itself wider in the lockdown. A survey by Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs presents the grim reality—“Women-led businesses are twice as likely to consider closing down permanently as compared to those run by men.”
Many studies trace the gender-gap in entrepreneurship through negative personality traits that women may have i.e. low hubris and risk-averse behaviour. However, there are various structural barriers—social, financial, and technical—that encumber women’s entrepreneurial tendencies. Women are further disadvantaged because the sectors that they occupy such as food, arts, recreation, and retail were some of the most ravaged by the lockdown. The pandemic has capitalised on these barriers making it a cumbersome process for women entrepreneurs to survive or even enter the entrepreneurial world.
1. Domestic Barriers
Businesses run by women are a secondary source of income for most households. Moreover, a majority of women run a single-person enterprise which generates lower revenue than their male counterparts. Thus, many women-run enterprises took a backseat in the pandemic. Women were forced to devote more time to unpaid care work as entire families were hoarded at homes. Domestic help and daycare facilities were also redundant. Thanks to a patriarchal set-up, a volley of responsibilities fell on women which reduced the time spent on their businesses.
2. Financial Barriers
Women have long been missing from India’s start-up story. From being investigated about child-bearing plans to being asked for a male co-founder—procuring finance for women means navigating through several gendered filters. A lack of inherited resources deprives them of the collateral required to access formal credit. Therefore, most women resort to borrowing from informal sources such as family members – an outlet not available to many. The pandemic has exacerbated this grievance as gender-lens investing has been replaced by immediate relief measures due to a modicum of credit.
3. Digital and Technical barriers
The future is digital they say, but a digital divide is tangible throughout India, even more so in rural India. An information asymmetry makes it impossible for women to access digital financial services that have a lot of benefits. Their limited access to technology makes them limp through their business operations. The figure below is “clear evidence that women-led SBGs are being affected disproportionately, and a gender-smart response is needed to navigate this crisis.”
Even the pre-pandemic world was rife with gender-disparity in the entrepreneurial sector. Despite a gamut of government policies, India’s egregious performance is reflected in the indices by the Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs, ranking 52 out of 58 countries. Women constitute a mere 14% of the total entrepreneurial workforce; the pandemic is anticipated to steer the future calculations on a degressive path.
What is at stake here?
In a domain where women are already underrepresented, they will begin to experience a vanishing autonomy. Apart from their economic independence slipping away, some perennial consequences include reduced influence in household decisions, restricted mobility, and reinstating patriarchal structures at a community level. This begs the question,
Is the pandemic going to undo generations of progress for women?
- The Print
- Deutsche Welle
- The Hindu
- Inter Press Service
- The Economic Times
- Financial Express
Featured Image Source: Cherie Blair Foundation For Women