When Mumbai fashion designer Ashwini Mhetre, 31, approached banks for loans to set up a business last February, the responses were riddled with gender clichés: “You are 30, what if you decide to give it up and get married?” and “If you get married, will you put the same effort as you would as a single person?”

Kavneet Sahni, 40, faced similar scepticism when she was setting up her food consultancy in Gurugram eight years ago. She was faced with questions such as “Why not have more men in her team?” Or “How would you handle business if you have children?”

Sanam Devi, 40, runs a tiny general store, selling biscuits, salt, flour, rice and so on in Indira Kalyan Vihar, a low-income neighbourhood in south Delhi. “If people from my village saw my wife working, they would disapprove,” said her husband Randhir Singh, 50, who suffers from impaired mobility. “But we do not have a choice, we have to live.”

Business in India is dominated by men – only seven in 100 enterprises in India are run by women, as per a November 2020 report of the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy, a gender research and advocacy organisation. This is despite the fact that female entrepreneurship can potentially generate millions of jobs and pull more women into the employment stream.

With business networks, institutions, and systems dominated by men and attuned to their needs, women entrepreneurs like Mhetre and Sahni routinely face bias, we found in our two-part investigation into why India reported the third-highest gender entrepreneurial gap in the world.

In the first of the story, we explored why women’s requirement for institutional finance remains largely unmet. In this, the concluding part, we examine social norms, poor support networks and logistical issues that inhibit women entrepreneurs.

“There was a time when Indian women were reluctant entrepreneurs, entering business only to support families when men could not,” said Sona Mitra, principal economist at Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy. “This has changed.”

Young women now have a significant place in business – 58% of India’s female entrepreneurs are in the 20-years to 30-years age bracket at the time of starting up, according to Women’s Entrepreneurship in India, a forthcoming working paper jointly published by the Institute of Social Studies Trust and Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy.

However, attitudes to women business owners have yet to change, we found.

No mentors, networks

In 2018, Niti Aayog, the government policy think-tank, launched the Women Entrepreneurship Platform, a portal to provide knowledge and support to women entrepreneurs. The site requires a valid email ID and mobile number to register after which members can post queries and read articles. It has recorded 258 posts over three years.

The Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises ministry launched a network for women entrepreneurs, Udyam Sakhi, in 2018. Its stated intent was “to encourage women entrepreneurs and to aid, counsel, assist and protect their interests” through a single portal. The site claims 2,50,245 total visits and 3,035 registrations.

Apart from this, there are only some scattered private networking initiatives.

The women entrepreneurs we interviewed said they had to work with no support from any network, government-backed or otherwise, or mentorship programmes. “Even if the government has good intentions, the ground-level implementation is riddled with hitches,” said veteran entrepreneur Archana Garodia-Gupta, who was also the former national chair of the MSME committee at the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and the head of its women’s wing.

IndiaSpend has reached out to both the MSME ministry on the status of Udyam Sakhi and the Women and Child Development Ministry for a response on current and future women-specific schemes. We will update the story when we get a reply.

Apart from the emotional support from her husband and some tips from the family accountant, she always felt isolated in her journey as an entrepreneur, said Sahni.

“There were no portals or mentors to guide you on how to start a company [as a woman],” she said. A key part of her work has been procuring liquor licenses, securing municipal permissions to use billboards, no-objection certificates from the police and permissions for holding shows in public parks.

“I faced harassment from various authorities such as the excise department, as a woman waiting to meet officials, sometimes I had to wait till 11 in the night because the concerned person was busy,” Sahni said. “It was hell, for example, waiting in the police station for hours for a no-objection certificate. Or being called at 1 am about a held-up shipment. A man would’ve offered bribes [to ease the processes] but I refused to.”

Inhibited by gender roles

Time is another constraint for women, as per the 2020 Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy report. Women can only devote 5.8 hours to home-based businesses while they put in 6.6 hours of unpaid caregiving.

Take the example of Sarita Devi, 40, who sells vegetables out of two carts in south Delhi’s Okhla industrial area. She bears the entire load of domestic work – cleaning, collecting water, cooking – and childcare at home till 3 pm and then heads out with her carts and works till 10 pm.

Between the piles of potatoes and onions on her cart stands a card with the icon of a mobile payment app. She has no idea how it works. “People pay with the app when they don’t have change but only my husband knows how it works,” she said. “And the mobile with the internet is shared by my two daughters.”

Sanam Devi shares her home, a 10-square-metre hovel that is right above the family grocery shop, with five family members. She runs the store but still thinks she does not have enough confidence. “I do everything now but customers still prefer to deal with my husband,” she said.

The scepticism she faced in her early years, Kavneet Sahni said, forced her to work harder and be more aggressive than any man in her position. “Brand managers, even those who graduated from IIMs [Indian Institutes of Management], would not respond to calls. It was humiliating,” she recalled. “Then, some men would say ‘let us go for dinner.’ And I had to state it clearly – ‘I’m happily married’.”

The problem is that women “normalise challenges”, assuming that they are always supposed to “adjust”, said Shabnam Batra, 43, who runs an organic food franchise just 200 metres from her apartment complex in Faridabad.

“This has to change,” she said “The day we opened, a lady came and yelled at me questioning what I was selling. I tried to explain scientifically what we do but she would not listen. If it were a man in my place, she wouldn’t have spoken like that.”

There are others who would want to speak to the “actual owner”, said Batra, assuming that the shop is actually being run by a man.

Way forward

The experts we interviewed for the story, Sona Mitra of Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy, Mitali Nikore of policy and research firm Nikore Associates and Archana Garodia-Gupta, former national chair at the FICCI MSME committee, put together some suggestions on how the gender gap in entrepreneurship can be erased. Some of these involve long-term policy shifts while others are measures that can be implemented in the short term.

Help them scale

Women entrepreneurs are compelled to run nano or micro ventures such as selling vegetables for survival and basic needs. These rarely earn them much, so they are unable to expand. They should be helped to grow their businesses with institutional backing and credit.

Provide training

Lacking collateral to seek bigger loans, women entrepreneurs generally avail the lowest category of government loans in micro-enterprises. Hence, they stay trapped in low-scale businesses. Enable their access to high-value loans.

For example, in Mudra, provide a differential rate of interest to men and women with the latter getting loans on lower interest. Create enabling financial tools to access these loans easily. Provide them with accounting and management skills to increase efficiency.

Aspiring women entrepreneurs should be offered digital and technical training by both the government and the private sector. This can include information about the sector they operate in as well as management and leadership lessons. Incentivise young women to join such sessions. The State Rural Livelihood Missions can also offer these training sessions in collaboration with companies with assured apprenticeship opportunities.

Strengthen collectives

The government should empower self-help groups and cooperatives where women have been successful by making them financially viable and independent.

Provide incubation

State governments can establish incubation centres in collaboration with industry associations. For instance, in 2018, Telangana’s “WE Hub” promoted women-owned enterprises by providing marketing, legal services, training and technical support, incubating 148 new start-ups.

Help with child and elderly care

Care duties within the family are among the top reasons most women drop out of the workforce or take a break. Iceland, for example, with high gender parity, has extended school hours from 1.30 pm to 5 pm so women can work 8 hours without worrying about childcare. India can examine similar solutions.

Enable digital access

Several women in India are now using online platforms to sell products from home. To encourage such ventures, the government could, to start with, give every woman from India’s 300 million below-poverty-line homes a smartphone.

Property rights

Make it easier for women to own property, and make certain loan amounts collateral-free.

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.