Women’s Day: Women entrepreneurs on gender biases and how they overcame them

What are the biases women face? And how do they overcome them? HerStory spoke to a cross-section of women to find out their stories.
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According to the LinkedInOpportunity Index 2021, more women in India have experienced the impact of gender on career development when compared to the APAC region.

Four out of five working women (85 percent) in India have faced gender bias at the workplace with respect to increment, promotion, or job offer.

In fact, about two-thirds of working women (63 percent) and working mothers (69 percent) said they have faced discrimination at work because of familial and household responsibilities.

A study by HSBCPrivate Banking in 2019 revealed that more than a third of female entrepreneurs experienced gender bias while pitching to investors. It also said that women receive on an average 5 percent less funding than their male counterparts when seeking capital funding. 

What are the biases women face? And how do they overcome them? HerStory spoke to a cross-section of women to understand how they faced biases – both conscious and unconscious, and how they overcame them.

Onward with zeal and passion

An industry that has male-dominated tailors, karigars, and vendors is not particularly considered something a woman can master, and the bias about a woman running and regulating a manufacturing unit wasn’t so accepting and forthcoming by some of our vendors. Inexperience initially was a baggage too, however, we had our way to turn the tables around with not just our negotiation skills and thorough market research but also our zeal and passion helped us storm through the passage eventually making it more open and accepting of women being in charge.

Ankita Bansal & Gayatri Bansal, ShopifyMerchants and Co-founders - THERE!

Versatility of emotions

The oldest bias in the book is that our society is conditioned to think women are soft and feminine and men are aggressive and masculine. Being in the field of law as a woman who speaks her mind, it can get tough to make people listen to you with an open mind. In fact, the higher you go, the tougher it gets. Truth is that femininity and masculinity are characteristics that serve well given their right use and these are available to all genders, should they so choose to harness. For instance, when it comes to managerial roles, various industry intelligence now realises that empathy is as critical, if not more, as taking tough calls. Being a manager is about versatility of emotions, understanding, and actions you can take. 

Archana Khosla Burman, Founder Partner - Vertices Partners

Chose to fight back

While urbanisation and literacy rates have increased and have lifted the social status of women in the Indian society, economic inclusion still remains fairly low. My initial years as a woman entrepreneur leading the organisation were tough. Being the only woman in a room full of startup founders who were men used to rattle me sometimes. I chose to fight back all the underlying prejudices based on gender and break the glass ceiling one step at a time. The most important lesson that 2020 has taught us is to come together as a global community and fight for a more inclusive and progressive society to make a ‘Real Change’. We have experienced a global pandemic and time is of the essence to start working together.  

Sneha Choudhry, CBO & Co-founder - ZoloStays

Change the status quo

The world we live in today is no longer just a man's world. Women from all walks of life have fought some fierce battles against this idea of male dominance and supremacy. The case of a woman entrepreneur is no different. Traditionally associated with stereotypical roles of managing households, women are sadly seldom seen as entrepreneurs - a testament to this is the glaring difference in gender ratio amongst entrepreneurs in India. While things are getting better with time, no way are we close to equity. Let’s hope that we are able to set an example for the coming generations and inspire them to change the status quo.

Deepshikha Kumar, Founder & CEO - SpeakIn

My numbers speak for me

At 23, when I stepped into the industry with GoPaisa, a woman in tech was still not a common idea. It raised many eyebrows. Round the table, in conferences and brand meetings, often I would be the only woman. I would not get heard enough, leading to a lack of opportunities for me. And what I understand is that it was not intentional. It was just there like something obvious or natural, which is sad. But all of this never made me question my abilities, and only made me more tenacious and persistent. Today, all the biases have evaporated, and my numbers speak for me.

Ankita Jain, Co-founder and Marketing Head - GoPaisa.

Breaking tradition

Establishing a differentiated product category for eco-friendly and sustainable lab-grown diamonds in an industry otherwise dominated by the conventional mined diamonds ingrained in the legacy of jewellery has been the greatest challenge to overcome.

Talking about breaking tradition - not coming from a jewellery family - has held me in good stead and allowed me to present an independent, unbiased perspective on these non-mined diamonds as well as advocate its authenticity, the underlying indigenous technology and the ecological benefits to the increasingly evolving and environmentally conscious consumer.

Passion, hustle, and focus is helping me break barriers in this male dominated industry.

Pooja Sheth, Founder - Limelight Lab Grown Diamonds

Stay calm and driven

Throughout my career, I have realised that most people are uncomfortable around intelligent and good-looking women. Women may not always get the opportunity to talk amidst their male counterparts. I have personally been to meetings where men would not converse with me, but chose to speak to my male colleagues. All my capabilities and qualifications seem to fade away. It is tough. Another example is office off sites. They have a disproportionate gender split. At such times, should women opt out due to lack of comfort? In a similar scenario, what would a man do? If women can get their views and opinions heard, they'd do well to break the gender stereotype. I have noticed that good work speaks for itself. This needed a lot of patience, acceptance and focus. It is important to stay calm and driven, despite the odds.

Zohra Hajiani, Managing Partner - Validus Wealth

Consistent hard work pays off 

The initial four-five years were challenging where I faced a lot of pushback as the men around me were only used to seeing women as secretaries or admin staff - deferring to the male supremacy. When I challenged it, wanting to be an equal, I was not taken seriously - clients would not shake hands with me or make eye contact while peers and seniors would not invest in training me as they felt I would not have the staying power for this business. Of course, there were tasks like fetching pizzas, coffee, inventory management, all that they thought were ‘better designed’ for a woman. I faced the objectification even more intensely during road shows where it was an all-men’s crowd and I couldn’t take my grievances to an authority.

However, the happy twist in the story is that I kept going and did whatever it took to stay in the playing field. I volunteered more than I could do and even when I was not assigned on the particular project. I worked extra hours and I remember when I was seconded to London, I would literally go below my desk and sleep there. All I had was my toothbrush! Every opportunity I got, I took it. Because I knew the only way that I could make myself indispensable was by being better than all the guys – not just being as good, but being better. I had to show I was more committed, especially after I was married. I had to prove to them that I could do this. The consistent hard work paid off.

Manisha Girotra, CEO - Moelis India

Changing attitudes

As a woman in the workplace there are always subtle covert biases that we have to face. Having been a working professional for almost three decades it is interesting to see how mindsets have evolved over the years.

As times are changing, attitudes are changing too and I am hopeful for seeing many more equal opportunities for women at the workplace, especially at leadership positions.

By being responsive, not reactive; by being strategic and not only tactical, and cultivating a wide set of advisors has helped my journey.

Vandana Chopra, Head - Brand and Communications, KPMG India.

Edited by Megha Reddy