If you care about equality, Ameera Shah and Apurva Damani have 6 important messages for you

By Binjal Shah|30th Dec 2017
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It’s almost 2018, and the glass ceiling preventing women from succeeding still looms large. Here is what you can and must do as a family, a husband, a parent, a woman, a viewer, to make sure you are not part of the problem. 

It’s almost 2018, and the glass ceiling still looms large, as unassailable as ever. Remnants of centuries-old patriarchy continue to plague women at every stage of their lives – from young girls still being taught not to be bossy, to young women still not being made boss.

As women who have been around the block, Ameera Shah, a global icon who is the MD of Metropolis Healthcare Limited, and Apurva Damani, a prominent VC who is the director of Artha India Ventures, have faced several gender challenges on their journey to the top.

Therefore, at the close of the year, here are six calls to action they are giving every stakeholder in the ecosystem to ensure that women aren’t left behind in the great Indian startup story.

(L) Ameera Shah and (R) Apurva Damani

To parents…

Inculcate ambition and a risk-taking attitude

According to Ameera, conditioning starts young as we come from a patriarchal society. When it comes to the literacy rate in India – which is not promising in general - the proportion of girls that go to school is even lower. 65.6 percent at last count.

“Boys are taught to be tough, take risks, and dream big, while girls are trained to be docile, be facilitators and blend in the background. The scenario might be changing where parents ensure that girls study - but it is often with the underlying intention of bettering her marriage prospects, instead of her professional development,” notes Ameera.

Because of this prevalent mindset, women lack the risk-taking ability from the very start. “Risk-bearing is an essential requisite of a successful entrepreneur. And it is an ability that must be inculcated in girls consciously and actively,” says Ameera.

Moreover, as Ameera points out, even today, from certain jobs to entire industries, many streams are considered to be exclusive for men. “The female-male ratio in technology institutions is 1:10, and it is the kind of field where most try their hand at entrepreneurship at the college level itself. Thus, the ratio of female founders will definitely be skewed. Hobbies need to stop being gendered – and girls must be encouraged to choose the full gamut of professions available, right from their childhood,” says Apurva.

To families…

Invest in your women

Finance evades women-run organisations overtly as well as covertly. Women still do not hold an equal share in property and assets, (despite laws to this effect) to be able to use them as collateral for obtaining funds from external sources. Worldwide, women own merely 20 percent of the total land. Across India, only 13 percent of farmland is owned by women, according to census data. Thus, their access to the external sources of funds is limited. “Women entrepreneurs are bound to rely on their own savings. External funding, if at all, comes from relatives or friends – which is expectedly meagre. Furthermore, when women from the house ask for financial help they are not encouraged and their dreams are suppressed. I remember every single person I dealt with would ask me questions like "You'll get married, you'll have babies soon, why are you wasting your time in investing in your business? These are some of the preconceived notions that society has and is deeply entrenched,” says Ameera Shah.

To husbands…

Share the load

Women drop out of careers as they progress with age and promotions because of multiple reasons – burgeoning familial responsibilities, maternity breaks, lack of meaningful returnship programmes, etc. “Why are men still playing a secondary role in the upbringing of their own child? The woman’s total involvement in the family leaves little or no energy and time to devote to business. Support and approval of husbands is a necessary condition for women’s entry into the business, owing to the current status quo. So, until that is fixed, it is crucial that men everywhere, rather than being a hindrance, act as a fulcrum for women who wish to pivot from family to career,” says Ameera.

“Looking at the women we have funded and backed, I realised this is the one pain point women entrepreneurs need to solve for – setting up a support system that can take care of other responsibilities so that they can focus on their work,” adds Apurva.

To the ecosystem...

Let them in

The ecosystem is heavily skewed towards men – right from the entrepreneurs to the VCs, it is an old boys’ club. “Any event I attend, I see far more male angel investors, VCs and entrepreneurs. At the monthly meetup, I run for young angel investors to exchange experiences, ideas and deals flow – I am often at times the only woman at the table. Perhaps I need to make even more of a concerted effort to reach out to women investors to balance the group’s gender ratio,” says Apurva.

A lot of initiatives have been instated to support women entrepreneurship – and they have not necessarily been spearheaded by men. Kalaari’s K Start Women’s Challenge, Zone Startups India’s empoWer, TiE Global’s women entrepreneurship programme, Google’s programme for the women entrepreneurs who join their Launchpad, etc. are examples of all the initiatives out there, floated by corporates and VC firms in order to actively move from being part of the problem to a part of the solution.

In fact, Ameera Shah herself has started a microsite and an on-going mentorship programme, especially targeted to women entrepreneurs who grapple with gendered challenges – under the umbrella of “Empoweress.”

“The overwhelming part of this programme is that most of the situations are related to problems like non-support of the family, aggravation from investors, and how to keep moving when every person is de-motivating them,” she tells us.

To you, the viewer…

Stop assuming the gender of certain roles, and the roles of a certain gender.

Right from textbooks to literature to cinema to pop culture, gender roles – or that is, an archetypical image of what a man is supposed to be like versus what a woman is supposed to be like – are propagated directly as well as subliminally, and lead us to associate certain personalities to men, and certain qualities to women –not necessarily rooted in biology. For example, one assumes that a doctor or a tech entrepreneur would be a man, or a fashion designer would be a woman.

“Ten years ago, I was mistaken for being the secretary in the boardroom. When I walk into a meeting with a male colleague, people would assume he’s the boss,” recounts Ameera, adding, “So, while the world around us scrambles to keep up with the evolving ideas of gender and gender roles to accommodate men and women and their ever-expanding horizons, the onus also lies upon us to consciously unlearn the stereotypes we have been fed about the genders, and grant more leeway to others around you to be who they truly are.”

Finally, to women everywhere…

Make your own way until the roadblocks clear

Apurva recalls having been to events where men may speak directly to other men (even if they are younger or junior) while completely ignoring Apurva, even if she might have something relevant to say. She sensed another pattern though – that women sometimes aren’t being proactive enough to break into this existing boy’s club. Women have a lot of domain knowledge but tend not to showcase it.

“If there is a group of people discussing a particular stock price or the volatility in the cryptocurrency market, women tend to keep quiet for a few reasons. Perhaps women are good listeners, or they wait for a pause in the conversation to butt in. Basically, women wait to be invited to give their opinion - while men don’t think much at all before joining a conversation. What women need to do - and something I make a conscious effort to do myself - is butt in, ask questions and make a comment. It takes effort and practice,” she says.

In the meanwhile, Ameera’s advice to women business leaders is simple - “Ladies, tell yourselves, ‘For now, this is how it is. How can I still find a way to get what I want?’”

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