Understanding the Gender Gap in Indian Entrepreneurship


If our country has to achieve equitable, inclusive and sustainable development then our women have to be empowered economically, socially and politically. Empowering women would have positive repercussions and a snowballing effect on the education, employment, health, nutrition and sanitation sectors of our society.  Of all the means of empowerment, economic empowerment is crucial indeed. The onset of economic empowerment is definitely economic participation. Unfortunately, economic participation in India has always been writ with gender gaps. 

Some Statistics

Gender gaps in economic participation have consistently remained high in India over the last several decades.  According to the 2017-18 Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS), female labour force participation in India has been around 23%.  When compared to the emerging market economies this is one of the lowest figures.  This is a cause for concern as in 2005 female labour force participation was at 35%.  This low participation has serious repercussions not only on the economy but on the society as a whole. When nearly half of our population is not participating in the economic activities then how can we hope to make our GDP rise?

It is in this larger context that we need to situate entrepreneurship, and in particular women entrepreneurship. Here we need to keep in mind that the Indian economy has grown steadily over the last few decades. Along with this there has also been a rise in new businesses and start-ups.  But most of these new enterprises are founded and run by men.  This is, inspite of the several schemes launched by the State to support and encourage women entrepreneurs. In the Sixth Economic Census that was conducted by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme implementation between 2013-2014, women constituted   13.76% of the total entrepreneurship.   The Master Card Index of Women Entrepreneurs conducted in 2018, ranked India 52nd out of 57 countries that was surveyed. It is this low presence of women entrepreneurs that has been responsible for the low score that India got in the Gender Gap Report – 142 out of 149 countries.  

Women Entrepreneurs

Close to 65% of these women have their businesses in the non-agricultural sector while the rest are in the agricultural sector.  They largely own only small firms. Most of the businesses owned by women are also micro-enterprises with less than Rs 25lakh investment in plant and machinery. Most of these businesses also tend to hire only women. This is because of the kind of enterprises that they are involved in – tailoring units, pickle and pappad making, beauty and wellness saloon, clay and pottery works etc. A large number of women entrepreneurs particularly in the rural areas supplement their family income through these micro-enterprises.  There is no doubt that these small micro-enterprise initiatives have gone a long way to ameliorate the conditions of poor women and their families.

Understanding the causes for low Women Entrepreneurship  

Before we proceed to look into some of the factors that affect the low participation of women in entrepreneurship, let us state a given situation, “EMBARKING ON A BUSINESS IS A CHALLENGE IRRESPECTIVE OF GENDER”.  If one were to look into the processes involved there are several phases in the entrepreneurship process – funding, understanding the customer field, understanding the market and developing strategies and of course running through all these phases are complying with the regulatory mechanisms.  Apart from the above challenges women entrepreneurs face several other challenges on account of their gender. These can broadly be classified as structural and patriarchal challenges.

1. Structural Challenges

a. Lack of accessibility to the industrial areas

Many a time the area earmarked for industrial development is in the outskirts of the city. Lack of public transport and the absence of a vehicle of their own makes women shy away from making a bid for these units.

b. Lack of safety in public places  

Public spaces like roads and streets are perceived as an unsafe space for women travelling alone or in a group particularly after darkness falls. Added to this is the poor lighting that every city has and the lack of public transport beyond a particular time.  So women, whether employees or employers need to leave early. This perception of danger further reinforces social norms that it is best for a woman to stay indoors after darkness falls.

c. Endless Paper Work

The endless documents and paperwork that is involved in starting businesses is seen as cumbersome by women. In several studies conducted it has been stated that the numerous walks to the banks and to the concerned government offices is cumbersome and time consuming.

 2. Patriarchal Challenges

a. Gendered Mindsets

Many of us would have heard of this comment at least once in our lifetime – “Business is not meant for women”. This stereotype meant that only men have a head for business. Socialisation processes take care to see that women are brought up to take on family roles, or if encouraged for a career, get into teaching professions, while boys are often socialised to take on businesses. Men and boys are also believed to have the best brains, ability to take challenges and meant for productive work. Because of this mindset even today the word entrepreneur is largely meant to mean males. Even when couples own an enterprise very often it is seen as the woman is helping the male in their enterprise. Such gendered mindsets   have its effects on women’s education, skillsets and economic independence. These reasons makes it difficult for society to accept women as entrepreneurs.

b. Lack of education

In India although the gender gap in education is reducing very often we see that women are educated in soft subjects like the arts which is just enough to get a good marriage alliance. Emphasis on developing a skill sets, is lacking in their education. Women from the rural areas do have a low level of education again because of structural and patriarchal influences.

c. Lack of access to formal Finance

Most women in India do not own property nor are well educated to have a steady and good income. This means they do not have a collateral to offer while taking a loan to start an enterprise. Hence banks and other funding agencies look upon women with scepticism and consider them as a high risk or unloanable.   Several studies state that investors perceive loans taken by women to start businesses as bad loans as their payback capacity could be low. These are again stereotypes pursued to establish patriarchal stereotypes which have detrimental effects in society.

d. Inability to network

Less education, lack of exposure to the outside world, having less income in the hand as well as lack of access to technology when compared to the males are some of the reasons why women find it difficult to network. Networking is important in entrepreneurship as it helps to identify a customer base and retain the customers too.  Networking also demands that interactions be done during late evenings or night. Gender roles prevent women into venturing out after dark.

Inspite of the above challenges we need to take inspiration from some of the successful women entrepreneurs we have around us.

Who has not heard of Oprah Winfrey and her Oprah Winfrey Show – a talk show focussed on spirituality, literature and self-help. Today, she has been declared as Americas first black multibillionaires.

A former Chemistry teacher, Wang Laichun, the Chairperson of the Chinese electronic company, Luxshare Precision Industry, sells most of the spare parts to APPLE. The Daily Telegraph has declared her as one of the world’s youngest self-made billionaires.

Let us also keep in mind our own home-grown successful entrepreneurs who have become household names – Supriya Paul, founder of Josh Talks, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, founder of Biocon Limited, Falguni Nayar, founder of Nyka, Vandana Luthra, founder of VLCC, Shahnaz Hussain, founder of Shahnaz Herbals. The list is endless.

We also need to take inspiration from the lesser known entrepreneurs who have come up the hard way, and have made a mark in their professions and their products.

Gunavathy Chandrashekaran from a small town of Sivakasi in Tamilnadu taught herself how to make beautiful pieces of art from scraps of paper. Today Guna’s Quilling sells quilled wall art, greeting cards jewellery and much more and is receiving accolades from all quarters.

Pabiben Rabari from the Rabari community in rural Gujarat has an enterprise Pabiben.comthat empowers rural artisans into making dhurries, quilts, cushion covers and files.

Anita Gupta from rural Bihar founded the Bhojpur Mahila Kala Kendra to empower women in the rural areas through training and employment.

Inspite of challenging ecosystems and limited resources these women from small towns have striven hard to become successful as entrepreneurs.


Empowering women is central to achieving sustainable, equitable and inclusive development. For this it is imperative that more and more women participate in the economic process and the best way to do this is by promoting them to have their own businesses and supporting them. For this there has to be a political will to bring about greater gender parity by creating a conducive ecosystems including mindsets to enable them to participate in the economic process. This would help them not only to integrate into the mainstream but would help in the economy and society to grow.

– Dr. Anita Ravishankar

Dr. Anita Ravishankar is an Associate Professor in Sociology and the Director of the Centre for Women’s Studies, Mangalore University. She has worked earlier as a Social Scientist in DANIDA’s Water and Sanitation sector and was a Visiting Professor at Volda University, Norway, MSH, Paris and London School of Economics, UK.


Leave a Comment