During my visit to India last week in support to the US State Department’s mission, AIRSWEEE (All India Road Show for Women’s Economic Empowerment through Entrepreneurship), I learned an important lesson. I am truly humbled and appreciative of being given this opportunity to work with Indian women entrepreneurs who have great ideas for their enterprises. With all the adversities that these women face from non-supportive families to lack of resources due to gender bias, I thought I was spreading a message of equality to those underserved.
The mission of the program is to empower women business owners in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities in India and provide them with tools to scale up their businesses. We provided tools for them to understand the ideation to the product development stage, go-to market strategies, financial statements, and many others to support running their businesses in more efficient manner.
I felt that I was making a difference as I introduced the US work culture, helping them handle the objections that they come across as women entrepreneurs. Little did I know that this trip would be a big learning lesson for myself. After finishing workshops in two southern cities in India, I made my way to the town I grew up in, which is almost a Tier 4 city (if anything like that even exists). My high school friends had arranged a re-union and about 14 of us were able to get together. Out of the 14, only three of us were women.
This was a great time to reconnect with old friends who I had not seen for decades. One thing that stood out to me that evening was that I felt I was a different gender than the 11 people in that room. Living in the US for the past 20 years have not had this experience, and have forgotten people have different expectations from me because of my gender. Everything about that evening was picture perfect for me except that I noticed I was not offered any alcoholic beverage. Not only that, the women were gently requested to finish their dinner and leave the party. It was an awkward moment for me as I had forgotten that I have experienced this growing up. By no means, am I promoting that women should be drinking alcohol, but what I am trying to say here is women should be treated equally. It should be my choice to say ‘no’ to a drink like any man who chooses not to drink alcohol. I do not want someone else making a decision on my behalf.
Here a week ago, I was promoting empowerment of women entrepreneurs, and when faced with the situation myself, I froze in the face of this discrimination. I did not ask if I could get an alcoholic beverage neither could I ask how long the party will go on after we leave. I truly felt like a hypocrite who could not stand up to the discrimination. It’s the fear of being judged that stopped me from asking all these questions. Thinking deeper all I could feel was that the discrimination is rooted in human behavior. In India it is common practice for women to provide the appetizers, ice bucket to the partying males in the households, and then go sit in the bedroom for the remaining of the evening. Why do women not participate as equal members of the society? I believe it is the fear of being judged, the fear of being labeled and the fear of losing the respect that is decided by the social circle based on what we eat/wear/drink.
But let us be realistic, is this problem just in India? I don’t think so; the problem is existing in the US as well but at a different level. Instead of dinner table this bias exists in the board room. Women still are looked through a magnifying glass when it comes to leadership positions in the developed world. Instead of providing the appetizers and ice bucket women here are expected to stick to non-leadership positions. The fear of being judged as an aggressive woman leader is what causes this behavior and we settle down at middle management or below. Isn’t the stark reality revealed by these numbers? Women are more than 50% of the total population, but only 20% of elected officials and 11% of corporate board positions of Fortune 1000 companies are women. The 20% elected women and 11% board members including the successful women entrepreneurs and leaders that I know have worked very hard to get to this point. They have overcome the fear of being judged and followed their dreams to achieve what they want. The resilience and the power within has helped them to make their dreams come true. Although more women are stepping out of their comfort zones to follow their passions, but nearly not enough to make the equation balanced.