Through vicarious experiences picked-up from books, mainstream media, and stories of women-counterparts, I thought I was aware of gender-based systematic oppression of our society and how they were preventing women from breaking the glass ceiling. But, only after months of research for a consulting assignment that dealt with devising decent self-employment opportunities for marginalized women of Nepal, I found myself closer to understanding challenges Nepali women entrepreneurs face.
For me, the starting point to understanding these challenges was to unlearn socio-cultural notions I had learnt till now. To look at the challenges from the vantage point of women who lived very different experiences than I did. I realized, to ensure fair economic participation of Nepalese women; it was vital to understand their delicate circumstances. The way they faced challenges from deep-rooted notions of patriarchy. Their unique socio-cultural and economic position. And, how any efforts made without considering these factors could push them to more vulnerable situations than before.
Funding is one of the biggest challenges faced by women who aspire to start their businesses. While finding investors to invest in a start-up is a defining challenge for any entrepreneur regardless of their gender. It is particularly tough for women to manage the initial investments to start a business.
For instance: The 2015 Constitution of Nepal has provisions ensuring equal rights to women to parental or inherited property. However, patriarchal practices, or traces of patriarchal traditions in the legal framework make it difficult for women to exercise their rights. Despite her right to property, woman per se still cannot, or would not want to compel her parents or spouse to transfer the property to her name.
Now, if a woman is seeking to innovate through entrepreneurship, without collateral and added social-cultural barriers, it becomes increasingly difficult for her to access loans from formal financial channels. In turn, she may have to either borrow from micro-finance institutions or informal lenders who charge the highest interest rates.
In our survey which included 112 women, for almost 80% of the women loan from relatives and family members was the only way to manage investments to start their businesses.
When we imagine family members who are “unsupportive” of women running their own enterprises, we may instinctively think of a person who would prevent women from actively participating in economic activities. But, that is not the case. For many women finding economic independence is a vicious cycle. In our study, women who considered their family members to be unsupportive usually had low economic conditions. It was difficult for them to maintain day-to-day expenses, to pay for skill-development programs that would aid them in starting their own business, or to pay for transportation to attend such programs. Mere 7.27% had some personal savings to invest in starting their business.
On the other hand, women who considered their family members to be supportive, also claimed that busy involvement in household chores and family care prevented them from advancing in their careers. To some extent revealing that, women are so conditioned to societal norms like “they have to be primary caregivers and homemakers”, they find it difficult to recognize the structural challenges. Such socio-cultural mind-blocks prevent women from becoming successful entrepreneurs.
Essentially, challenges faced by women entrepreneurs are complex and require careful analysis and intervention mechanisms. We cannot design effective programs to empower women entrepreneurs without first researching in-depth on the support that would work for them, and the support that they need.
Women are not part of business networks that would assist them to find clients, partners, suppliers, or investors to grow their businesses. While their male-counterparts find it easy to socialize and build their social currency.
This is because women have historically had low exposure to an environment that would contribute to their growth. Firstly, our education system lags to equip students with critical entrepreneurial thinking. Secondly, when women do not get the opportunity to participate in networking events, workshops, and conferences it leads to a lack of practical knowledge and entrepreneurial aptitude required to run a business. While our society has progressed in recent decades where women have become more outgoing and outspoken, the social barriers that challenge women entrepreneurs can still be noticed at large and its impact can be further explored.
Naturally, even in our study, we discovered that women had more conventional orientations where they aspired to run businesses that sustained themselves and provided them with a steady income to support their families. Consciously or unconsciously, they lacked the ambition to scale-up their business and to excel in their careers. Primarily because they lacked confidence and the role models that would aspire them to take risks and to innovate.
Many women who wanted to start their own businesses had reservations about traveling for work. For some women, transportation cost was a determining factor that prevented them from traveling. Although, not found in this study, restrictions placed by family members can also lead to limited mobility among women. Family barriers can be hard to explore through survey studies as women are sensitive to responding to questions about their families and personal matters. However, the crux of the matter remains that inability and unwillingness to move limit entrepreneurial ventures that women could otherwise successfully undertake.
The views expressed in this article are personal experience and opinion of the author. The personal opinion and experience should not be considered professional opinion of Biruwa Advisors Pvt. Ltd.