On the occasion of International Women’s Day, the United Nations is celebrating the theme DigitalALL: Innovation and Technology for Gender Equity. And it made some critical observations. For instance, women make up 22% of the workforce for Artificial Intelligence (AI). Additionally, in a survey of 113 AI systems across industries, 44% exhibited gender bias in some form. Evidently, while women have come a long way, the world still needs to play catch up – in perception, efforts, and real-world impact, that goes beyond discourse and debate.
On one hand, digital technologies are opening up avenues for women’s empowerment. And concurrently, women’s lack of access and exposure to technology keeps increasing the gender gap in digital access. There is also the persistent threat of online gender-based violence, often without the option of legal recourse, which is forcing women out of online spaces. This dichotomy of what women have achieved and the sizeable challenges that still remain was also embodied by a panel of women entrepreneurs at the recently concluded GSV Emeritus India Summit held in New Delhi, India.
The panel, POW: Power of Women Leading Innovation, talked about women entrepreneurs and their role in innovation with a hyper-focus on education. The discussion was spawned by the fact that only 6% of co-founders and a meager 2% of CEO in India’s thriving startup ecosystem are women. While the panel in itself was the solution to the problem this statistic represents, it is important to identify the challenges for women entrepreneurs.
What is Holding Women Entrepreneurs Back?
It is certainly not a lack of talent or ability because women run one of three high-value businesses around the world. So, the time for proving that women can make great leaders is already past. The unfortunate statistic we are decoding seems to be a product of a lack of opportunity and access. Just like the UN report, the panel at the GSV Emeritus India Summit also looked at the problem statement from many different angles.
1. Lack of Support From Investors
Vani Kola, Managing Director of Kalaari Capital, started the discussion on this panel by talking about an independent survey conducted by her firm with a cohort of aspiring women entrepreneurs. An overwhelming 70% of these future women entrepreneurs agreed that when they were pitching their business ideas, there were no other women in the room. Essentially, they were pitching to male investors. While that does not necessarily determine the results, 68% of these women believed that their gender played a part in how much capital they could raise.
“It may be a perception that gender is playing a part in whether or not women entrepreneurs get funded. However, their (the women entrepreneurs’) perception is their reality,” clarified Kola.
2. Tokenism Towards Women Leaders
Prerna Jhunjhunwala, whose venture Creative Galileo, is funded by Kola’s firm, drew the panel’s attention to how speaking of women in leadership positions is the politically right thing to do. Hence, everyone speaks of it, and there is a narrative around it. However, when it comes to real change, we can do much better.
“Many people talk about gender equity and having women in leadership positions. But, very few are willing to make a tangible impact by walking the talk,” she said.
3. Inequitable Distribution of Resources
Do men and women entrepreneurs begin their journey from the same point?
Supriya Paul, CEO of Josh Talks and one of the panelists at the summit, does not believe so. A level playing field is a huge luxury and maybe even a utopian concept in developing economies like India.
She said, “In some parts of India, there is a lack of exposure and access to technology for women. For instance, we might say that smartphone penetration in India is massive. But, we do not realize that it is a shared asset. How much time are women and girls getting with just one smartphone in the family?”
4. The Perception of Women Leaders Being Women First
It is not that women don’t contribute to innovation. The first person to write code was a woman! However, when it comes to leading innovation, they often don’t complete the ‘last mile’. Ashley Chiampo, Chief Learning Officer at Emeritus, spoke of women leaders and the perceptions that surround them.
“Traditional female traits like empathy, emotional intelligence, and collaboration are great for entrepreneurs. But somehow, these traits also hold us back as women leaders,” she explained.
5. Being Limited by Stereotypes
Smita Deorah, Co-founder and Co-CEO at LEAD, believes that some of the blame lies with aspiring women entrepreneurs as well, for they often find themselves limited by stereotypes deeply ingrained by society at large.
She said, “Women tend to hold themselves back because of guilt. So the real question is are we playing to our full potential?”
And to men, she asked a rather pertinent question. “Are you partnering on the home front, or are you just helping out?” she asked. Deorah talks about the unequal distribution of work and responsibilities on the home front that impact women giving their best at work.
Over and above these actual challenges, there is a persistent challenge of navigating mindsets that women entrepreneurs, in particular, and women, in general, have to contend with. Be it fighting off working mothers’ guilt to being perceived as ‘aggressive’ or ‘intimidating’ for getting the job done, women entrepreneurs have their plates full.
What do Women Entrepreneurs Need to Succeed?
When it comes to finding solutions to an institutionalized problem like gender parity, there often isn’t a ‘silver bullet’ that can fix everything. Just like the problem, the solution is also multi-faceted too. This panel, which by its mere existence represented the solutions, identified the following ways to address the challenges that plagued women entrepreneurs:
1. Not Just Funding, Mentorship Too
Vani Kola spoke of the importance of taking small steps as she talked about the CXXO Program started by her company. “The CXXO program not only funds women entrepreneurs but also provides them with the necessary mentorship. And in 18 months, we have already funded eight women. It may not be a large number, but it makes a difference,” she said. She also went on to add, “We often look for big-bang solutions, but the best solutions are small and come at the grassroots level.”
2. The Importance of Doing Your Bit
Ashley Chiampo seconded the value of small steps and called for a pledge. “Can we all promise to take a small step to help women entrepreneurs on Women’s Day? It could be hearing five pitches from aspiring women entrepreneurs or investing in one. It could be mentoring a younger woman at work or just having a conversation with your spouse to see what she needs to feel supported,” she suggested, drawing not just applause but also a commitment from the audience.
3. Men Can be a Part of the Solution Instead of the Problem
At Emeritus, we have two male co-founders. But there are 49% of women in the workforce and 42% of women in senior leadership positions. It’s 2023, and we have every reason to believe that men want to address the issue of gender parity in leadership roles just as much as women do.
Prerna Jhunjhunwala resonated with this sentiment when she said that the needle could not be moved by women alone. “No change occurs with just 50% of the workforce. The other 50% also has to pitch in,” she said. She also said that women need an infrastructure that supports them with childcare, funding, flexible hours, and favorable policies as the odds are stacked against them.
Are You an Ally in Women’s Empowerment: Take This Quiz to Find Out
Lisa Tenario, SVP of Learning Design at Harvard Business Publishing and the moderator of this diverse panel, made a very interesting observation: ‘entrepreneur’ is a gender-neutral word, at least as far as the dictionary is concerned. But is it perceived that way in the real world? Let’s watch this video to find out
Perceptions are powerful. And it’s time to change them. This Women’s Day, we at Emeritus want to change perceptions that hold women back. And what better way to counter perceptions than actual skills? Every entrepreneur, be it a man or woman, needs skills to build a sustainable business. Thus, you can change the world one perception at a time by exploring a wide range of entrepreneurship courses at Emeritus from the world’s best universities.
By Anwesha Barari
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