By Anuradha Ramachandran
India ranked 140 out of 156 countries in The World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Gender Gap Index for 2021. The US, despite its strong economic position and democratic tradition only reached #30, well behind poorer nations with spottier political histories, such as Rwanda or Lithuania.
Gender gaps are universal and persistent. Even Iceland, which has consistently held the #1 spot in the index doesn’t get a perfect score.
The index measures gaps across four socio economic sectors, including workforce participation, health, education and political empowerment. The good news: India ranks notably high under the political metric.
The flip side of that positive light though is that the other three metrics must be detrimentally low for the overall score to come in so close to the bottom. And that is the case, particularly for economic participation. Between 2020 and 2021, India’s rank dropped 28 places, largely due to women’s shrinking share of India’s workforce.
From my perch, as a venture-fund director, I see many of the same issues that deter women from entering India’s workforce as also dampening female entrepreneurship.
The problem isn’t education. Although India doesn’t rank stunningly well in the WEF index for education, we still see about 45% female participation in STEM courses and engineering studies. The disconnect starts in the workplace; only about a third of female graduates make it into entry-level positions. When you look at mid- or senior-level management, there’s a sharp drop.
So what’s going on? Perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, improving GDP could be part of the challenge. As GDP grows, both genders may see less need for women to participate in the workforce. In practice, that means women’s role as the primary homemaker gets reinforced. And ultimately that feeds a persistent bias, which plays out in many ways.
With so few women in business leadership, the workplace itself can be very male-oriented. Corporate hierarchies still base off of informal networks and women are rarely part of them. As primary caregivers at home, even when they are working, women face real time constraints. They have to get back to the family instead bonding with co-workers and end up being left out of social networks. This turns into a career limitation because at an informal level, they are simply less visible. It’s not because of women’s ability to get things done; it’s perception.
Women are working twice as hard, doing two jobs—one at home and one at work. But because it’s impossible to be in two places at once, they are seen less at both.
That bias carries over into the entrepreneurial world. I’ve witnessed conversations with entrepreneurs—male ones—saying they expect people to work 14-hour days. And they question if women are up to the task because of bias brought from the corporate world. A 14-hour workday is not work-life balance; it’s work, eat, sleep, repeat. That’s not healthy for men or women and it leaves no room for family. Men who work 14 hour days, can’t be in two places at once either; families get the short end in that scenario.
I’ve seen the same issue with investors. When women seek funding, they get asked about how they will balance their home and work life. Such questions aren’t put to men. Male founders are asked about growth and forward vision or how they will deliver alpha. Women’s questions are risk-mitigating rather than forward-looking. By design, risk mitigation takes any evaluation down a notch.
This is not some conservative bank policy, it’s bias. And Everybody has it; bankers, equity investors, anybody associated with money. Including other women.
With my own investments, I’ve seen how we fall into this trap. When a female founder came to me to say she had become pregnant and that clauses in her contract would be impossible to meet, it fell to me to communicate with the rest of the board and try and work out a solution. Ultimately, we changed the timings and she came back after the baby’s delivery and delivered on the business. But that experience really drove home how things need to change—not at the contractual or employment level but in society.
Women work twice as hard to get only a fraction of what men achieve. Yet they are just as educated and capable. The fact that India chooses female leaders in the political arena at a rate well above the global average means that on some deep level, we already recognize this.
Imagine what it would do for India’s gender gap ranking and GDP if we let go of bias and just start asking women entrepreneurs for their forward vision.