Women haven’t been given equal opportunities.” In earlier days in India, where, on one hand, boys were encouraged to pursue higher studies, girls, on the other hand, were relegated to domestic household work so that they can be married off.
Illustration: Chaitanya Dinesh Surpur
As the world was entering a new millennium in 2000, only 11 women worldwide, a miniscule number, were a part of the billionaires club, as per Forbes. Today, that number has increased to 327, but it’s still a mere 12.25 percent of the total 2,668 billionaires on the planet.
Bring India into this statistic, and it’s far worse. Let’s analyse a 10-year time period for Forbes India’s list of 100 Richest Indians, beginning 2013. Since then, the number of women who have featured on the list has only gone up slightly. In fact, if we just consider the self-made women billionaires, in 2013, there were five women on the list, and this year the number remains the same. (excluding families). Nine female billionaires compared to 91 men.
This year, apart from Savitri Jindal of the OP Jindal Group, Biocon’s Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, and USV’s Leena Tewari, who have all been part of the Forbes India Rich List for many years, the list also includes Falguni Nayar of Nykaa, a new entrant, and Anu Aga of Thermax, a returnee who last featured on the list in 2014.
Meher Pudumjee, chairperson, Thermax, who is carrying forward her mother Anu Aga’s legacy, believes the reason may lie in the fact that in most family businesses, the company and wealth goes down from father to son. Hence, it would be difficult to find women who are billionaires as compared to men.
“The reason is simple,” explains Ghazal Alagh, co-founder, Mamaearth, who started the personal-care products company with her husband Varun in 2016. “Historically, women haven’t been given equal opportunities.” In earlier days in India, where, on one hand, boys were encouraged to pursue higher studies, girls, on the other hand, were relegated to domestic household work so that they can be married off. After the turn of this century, things began to change. “The last decade has seen a paradigm shift in the number of women in the workforce across all levels,” says Alagh.
Bala C Deshpande, founder and partner, MegaDelta Capital, who has over two decades of experience in the investing world, agrees with Alagh. “The fundamental reason for this difference is that women have entered the business or corporate world much later. If one were to look at decadal trends in India in terms of the number of women completing higher education, taking up employment, staying in employment post marriage etc., we started with a very low base”, says Deshpande, who has held close to 40 board positions in companies across a number of sectors.
The seventh edition of Deloitte Global’s Women in the Boardroom report released in February found that only 14,739 women in the world, across 51 countries, hold positions on company boards, which is about 19.7 percent. While France ranks at the top when it comes to percentage of board seats held by women (43.2 percent), India is at rank 29, with about 17 percent women board members. Also read: A year since Nykaa's IPO: More acquisitions, new products, focus on profitability
A seat at the table, however, does not necessarily mean women taking leadership positions. “Board participation does not automatically translate into leadership,” says Deshpande. As the seasoned venture capitalist (VC) says, leading a company as an executive function requires all board skills plus deep functional competencies in whoever is taking charge, be it a man or a woman, although gender diversity in boards has led to better corporate governance, more accountability and better risk management. “The point is not that women do not have it in them to become leaders but the correlation between being on a board and becoming a leader is a weak one,” she says.
As per a provision in the Companies Act 2013, every company has to mandatorily appoint a woman as part of the company’s board. Mitali Nikore, an economist and gender policy specialist, is of the view that the real reason for the rise in the percentage of women board members based on this legislation is a bit flawed. “A rise in women board members in India is the result of the legislation, and not because of anybody wanting to put women on their board.”
According to Nikore, often male founders put their wives, sisters or mothers on the board. Women, in these cases, may not have an actual control over the company or any voting right but are just on the board because they have to be by law. They might not even be involved in decision-making. “This is the reason why it doesn’t translate to an increase in women leadership. Many times, a woman on the board is somebody who is just there for ornamental reasons and not really making company decisions or taking an interest in the affairs of the company,” says Nikore, the founder Nikore Asscociates, a youth-led research group.
The Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR) for women from the April-June quarter in 2021 to the same quarter in 2022 has remained stagnant at 20 percent, according to the government’s quarterly Periodic Labour Force Survey. “The participation of women in the new economy, which is creating billionaires, is miniscule as of now. When you don’t have many women participating in the workforce and don’t have many women entrepreneurs, it is highly unlikely that they will be able to attain billionaire status,” Nikore adds.
“Over centuries, the messages a woman receives as a child from her family, and socially, is to be prepared to be a dutiful wife and caring mother; whereas her brothers are encouraged to join the business or start out as entrepreneurs. And hence the probability of women becoming billionaires is that much smaller,” explains Pudumjee. Dipali Goenka, CEO and joint MD, Welspun India, agrees. “Indian women have been brought up with the belief of family first,” says Goenka, who had been ranked as the 16th most powerful businesswoman by Forbes Asia in 2016.
For women, household, maternity and other caregiving responsibilities often lead to a break in their career path, which isn’t something men necessarily have to accommodate. “These breaks can impact a woman’s growth trajectory,” adds Goenka.
Neeti Sharma, co-founder and president of TeamLease Edtech, holds similar views. “The loss of experience during these break years may contribute to lopsided pay scales,” says Sharma, who co-founded the company in 2012 along with Shantanu Rooj.
In today’s day and age, men and women graduating from colleges enter an economy which promises pay parity, but it doesn’t seem to be enough. In reality, there are a number of other factors to consider. “The issue, as I call it, is of ‘opportunity parity’. Simply put, not being chosen for promotion even if deserved, losing a career-enhancing international posting, not being given a break because it is a man-centric role or industry, et al. When these career constraints appear continually, it is natural that women lag in the race to the top compared to their male peers,” explains Deshpande.
Issues like a deadline to come back home after work, not being allowed to go out for office parties at night, pressure to get married or have children are some of the factors that indirectly hinder women’s growth in the corporate world. These issues are alien to men as cultural barriers historically have been more stringent for women compared to men.
“I don’t think that men and women are ever going to start equally. Where women have to deal with questions such as ‘when will you be back home’, ‘why are you in office this late’ or have to look at rishtas over weekends and holidays, men don’t, and can instead network and focus on their career growth,” Nikore adds.
Also read: Three Indian women feature in 2022 Asia's Power Businesswomen List
In July, Forbes India spoke to Romita Mazumdar, founder and CEO of Foxtale, a D2C skincare brand, who started the company in 2021, post her stints as an investment banker and a venture capitalist (VC). As she met with investors to raise funds for her startup, Mazumdar recollected, she was asked questions like, “What happens [to the company] when you have kids?” or “Why didn’t you opt for a male co-founder?” These questions exhausted Mazumdar’s patience, as discrimination based on gender is something she hadn’t faced as a banker or a VC.
Pudumjee’s guess on the reason behind such questions is investors, who are mostly men, find it easier to trust other men with their money. “Those giving the capital are mostly men and so they find comfort in giving it to other men, since it is easier to get to know them and socialise with them.”
Deshpande, Alagh and Nikore stress on the practice that a great differentiated business proposition should be the reason a venture attracts funding, and that this process should be gender-agnostic. “I have heard from a few women entrepreneurs about their unfortunate travails and uncomfortable rounds of questioning [while raising funds]. But these experiences will slowly disappear as capital supply increases in our country and the buy-sell market goes up the maturity curve,” says Deshpande.
Alagh, 34, agrees that things will look up in the coming years. “In the last few years, there have been a lot of investors who are funding businesses for the idea and its potential, instead of the gender of the founder. The investors we interacted with during our funding stages always treated Varun and me equally. I never felt that I was being treated differently,” she says.
Women-led enterprises are mostly focussed on textile, food processing, and services like beauty salons, says Nikore. Considering the general growth of startups reaching the unicorn status in India, a number of them are coming from the technology sector, which makes it important to reverse the low representation of women in technology.
“Considering that the vast majority of venture capitalists and angel investors are men, biases are sure to creep in,” says Sharma of TeamLease Edtech. According to her, some of the biases that women face include investors doubting their abilities to be at the forefront of technological organisation or having the skill to take tough decisions.
Nikore is of the view that it is obviously not correct of investors to ask female founders uncomfortable questions regarding the presence of a male counterpart, but at the same time an investor will need to be assured that if there are changes in a woman’s life that will affect the time that she can give to the business, there should be a contingency plan in place: It doesn’t necessarily mean having a male co-founder, it could also mean having another woman co-founder. “I think women founders need to stop taking this question as something to be offended by and rather deal with it practically. All that the investor needs to know is that you have a plan in place to manage work in case of a familial situation. Beyond that, if the investor has unconscious biases, then he has to work on those biases.”
Social conditioning in women is also often a barrier when it comes to them raising funds, starting their businesses, making profits, and eventually turning billionaires, Nikore says. She opines that, at some level, women are not looking for the kind of funds that are going to make their companies big enough to make them billionaires. “Women are not looking for large funds. They know that there is an attitude against women entrepreneurs so they dream small, thinking that they might not be able to handle big amount of funds coming to them, and won’t know if they’ll be able to deploy it.”Check out the complete lndia's 100 Richest 2022 list
Today vs Tomorrow
One good news is that women are finding more role models in business. Falguni Nayar, founder of beauty ecommerce platform Nykaa, is ranked 44 in the Forbes India Rich List, with a net-worth of $4.08 billion, and is India’s richest self-made billionaire today. Other prominent women leading businesses include HCL Technologies’ Chairperson Roshni Nadar, former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi and Biocon’s Mazumdar-Shaw.
Even in the startups space, women are getting a seat at the table by either starting their own companies individually or with co-founders. Moving forward, things might change for the better. Women, both from rural and urban India, are coming up with innovative ideas that can bring about real change while making profits. An example is Kirti Jangra and Neetu Yadav, co-founders of Animall, an agritech startup that is empowering dairy farmers in the country to start their own farms by gaining access to quality cattle efficiently and quickly.
There are government schemes, such as the National Rural Livelihood Mission, that seek to encourage entrepreneurship among women, as well as investors being more intentional about having female-led enterprises as part of their portfolio. “We are definitely witnessing a rise in female-owned businesses and startups and this is an indication that things are changing”, Sharma believes. “I truly believe that it is a great time to be an entrepreneur in our country with deepening markets, great room for innovation, and availability of great talent”, says Deshpande.
Is it enough to simply encourage women to pursue entrepreneurship? “Women entrepreneurship is not a magic bullet. It is often made out to be so,” Nikore says. To really find solutions to some of these issues, one will have to start backwards. The failure rates as well as the factors responsible for women failing in entrepreneurship need to be studied; an analysis needs to be made based on the number of women continuing their entrepreneurship journey, and for how long. Until all this isn’t studied and corrective action taken, the road ahead might be difficult for women.
Nikore says, “I think we really need to study ideas—how can we strengthen the ideas of women entrepreneurs in both rural and urban areas and only then invest so that these women have the right tools to succeed.”
(This story appears in the 15 December, 2022 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)