Some of key national imperatives to propel India into next wave of growth include creating employment opportunities for segments such as women workforce

Male, Female, Gender, Work, Balance

For women, the internet hasn’t been a feature, a convenience or a tool; it’s been an agent of change. The global digital story cannot be complete without mentioning the impact it has had on reducing the gender gap and opening access and opportunity for women. Digital fluency has helped in closing the gender gap at the new age workplace. Nothing empowers as fiercely as equal access to information.

Digital has had a positive impact on women’s education, skills and therefore, employment openings. In countries where digital access and abilities are more widespread, there is a stronger sense of gender equity. Women who are familiar with the internet also display a strong sense of leadership because they are self-confident and skill-confident. Women want to return to the workforce and are finding new tracks to economic achievement; entrepreneurship is a big part of this.

Companies and governments face a disparity between the skills they need to stay aggressive and the pool of talent available to them. Because women are underrepresented in the workplace in most countries, they are a significant source of untapped talent. The future looks promising as the youth mature and move into the workplace and grow through ranks of leadership at work, using their skills to turn agents of change for their gender.

According to a report by Accenture, “If governments and businesses can double the pace at which women become digitally fluent, we could reach gender equality in the workplace by 2040 in developed nations and by 2060 in developing nations.”[1]

India adds five million connected users every month. These statistics are testimony to the opportunity in India’s internet story. In 2016, the number of mobile internet users in India is above 400 million as per internetlivestats.com.[2] That’s second only to China and ahead of the United States. However, despite these powerful figures, there is gender gap when it comes to access to internet. The internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) report shows that men account for 71 percent of internet users, while women account for just 29 percent. The gap is slightly lower in urban India, with men accounting for 62 percent and women 38 percent. These are the major findings of a report titled “Mobile Internet in India 2015,” released by the IAMAI and the Indian Market Research Bureau International.

Rural India has this ratio completely skewed in favour of men, where they constitute 88 percent of the total internet users. However, these disappointing figures present an opportunity and spell out the possibilities of providing women with new life skills.

Women Make in India

While the Make in India initiative has a lion for a mascot, the campaign offers scope to create lionesses out of women. A focus on entrepreneurship over job seeking can make change-makers of Indian women. These entrepreneurial industries can be big and small—operated from home or an office, virtual or on the shop floor.

Ananya Birla runs India’s third largest microfinance outfit called Svatantra. Every other week she is in a village, understanding how her clients—small, unorganised, often self-help groups and women—are utilising their funds. “We call it microfinance 2.0, lending small loans to many people and integrate that with technology,” she explains, on the heels of her return from Amravati in Maharashtra. “When I go down and talk to our clients, they are very happy with these, which is inspiring and refreshing.” Svatantra provides loans to tailors, farmers, housewives etc., depending on their businesses. “Women in these places are very enterprising,” notes Ananya, referring to the female populations in rural India.

There’s Devita Saraf, whose VU Technologies is turning 10 even before she is 35. She sells high-end televisions in India, from Maharashtra to Manipur. “Never underestimate your customer,” she says, citing how India’s appetite for luxury is growing. Saraf’s business has spread to interior India after she took VU online. First, she started selling in big metros but now, her products reach areas such as Sohlapur and Salem. Another female founder, Uma Reddy of Hitech Magnetics in Bangalore, is an electrical engineer running a company that manufactures transformers, feeding India’s heavy industry and defence needs. These are just some examples of women in businesses. In addition to them, there are champions of digital, branding and ideas. There’s Siddhi Karnani of Parvata Foods—primarily responsible for farming and organic produce in Sikkim—producing home-grown spices such as ginger and packaging them for the markets across India. It is evident that the breadth of businesses women are involved in is wide-ranging and impactful.

“Women entrepreneurs have an edge over male entrepreneurs,” says Amitabh Kant, CEO of National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog). He insists that this fact is going to radically change the story of the country’s future and its approach to creating economic value. “They will outperform for several valid reasons. Women leaders in India have a better feel of the household spending patterns. They understand consumer perspective better. They have a way of building trust with customers, shareholders, etc. Also, there is a great level of diversity when women occupy top positions.”[3]

Tech has fundamentally given many the flexibility to work when they want, according to Shikha Sharma, CEO of Axis Bank. It allows people to work from home, without taking away from the productivity, as it saves on costs for some companies and the time and stress involved in travel for employees. “From a workplace perspective, it’s giving women the opportunity to continue to participate in their careers without giving up the other roles as mothers or a daughter or daughter-in-law or whatever.”[4]

The new workplace is far more flexible. Attitudes have changed in the new entrepreneur-led organisation and the rise of digital business that have a start-up-like culture, allowing freedom of ideas, flexibility in terms of place of work and more. “When we started, there were few role models as women who were able to balance work and home,” says Sharma. “For all of us as women, you don’t want to be a loser in your family role. And therefore, it’s a constant question in your mind by becoming a career woman—are you going to compromise on your family?” So having a mentor to go to, whose able to balance that well is very important in your ability to stay down that path. The following question arises: what is the role of peers and do they accept women as equals in the workplace? According to Sharma, “Now we have got to the point that people are recognising having balance in your workforce, having men and women you get different perspectives and you could actually have a richer decision coming through.”

Power of language

India’s diverse cultures manifest themselves in its 22 languages and thousands of dialects. A new wave of interest in the internet is seen in those who have discovered that the internet should not be limited to English. Rajan Anandan, Google’s Asia Head, mentions the surge of local Indian languages as part of his larger emphasis on rise of content in India. “Hindi internet in India has grown at eight times more than English internet,” he said at the Digital Women Awards in November 2015.

Going forward, there will be more vernacular content will be more vernacular as the user base diversifies and grows to include larger numbers of rural consumers. The use of vernacular content online is estimated to increase from 45 percent in 2013 to more than 60 percent in 2018, according to a report by Boston Consulting Group, mirroring broadening consumption patterns in off-line media, such as print and television. English language still accounts for 56 percent of the content on the worldwide web while Indian languages account for less than 0.1 percent. However, although internet in India is predominantly English, there is high potential for regional language content. According to the report, in the last year alone, Hindi content on the web has grown by about 94 percent, whereas English content has grown only at 19 percent.  This is a relevant scenario in promoting the inclusiveness of women across the country.

Social fabric

A little known important fact is that most of the unconnected population are women. Not enough of them own mobile phones. In low- and middle-income countries alone, 1.7 billion females do not own a mobile phone today, says a McKinsey Report.[5] For those who do own phones, the internet usage is prohibitively low, and consumption of data and content is less intense. An opportunity is spelt by this gap, which reflects the fact that phone penetration is less ubiquitous in rural regions. Successfully targeting women not only unlocks significant growth potential for the mobile industry but also advances women’s digital and financial inclusion. In fact, closing the gender gap in mobile phone ownership and usage could unlock an estimated $170 billion market opportunity for the mobile industry in the period from 2015 to 2020. Women in South Asia are 38 percent less likely to own a mobile phone. Social media statistics also reflect this disproportion. Less than 30 percent women use social media, purportedly because it’s an unsafe place. Ankhi Das, Policy Head of Facebook, brings an important and real perspective to these figures. “It has a lot to do with access to resources. The deeper normative values we need to look at as a society before saying that it’s only because of safety concerns that people aren’t online. If I as a family have a data plan, and I come from a middle income status, which is subject to certain kind of normative values, and if I have both a son and a daughter, I will give the data plan to the son and not the daughter. I think this is a false binary that safety issues are keeping women from coming online.” According to a United Nations (UN) Women Survey, “Gender barriers are real. One in five women in India and Egypt believes the internet is not ‘appropriate’ for them.”

Inside India

The most powerful outcome of internet use is the fact that it decentralises work centres and therefore, makes empowerment widespread. India’s growing cities are the hotbed of talent, especially among women. SheThePeople.TV does a monthly workshop with women entrepreneurs who use the internet for their brand or business outreach. In Lucknow, Indore, Jaipur, Pune and many other cities, there is a growing network of women entering the start-up space. Many are turning homes into home-offices, some are catering food for orders made via the internet, several women are selling fashion garments on WhatsAPP and artists and musicians are building pages to extend their reach from Gachibawli to global audiences.

The trends are fascinating. Despite challenging and evolving business cycles, entrepreneurs are reinventing ideas to gratify the needs of the current market. The young generation is open to change—to diversify and go with ideas that will work in the new, demanding environment. There are various factors at play in these mini metros—one of them is the surge of the smartphone usage. There is increasing penetration and enhanced reach as feature phones are populating the cities allowing for higher reach of e-commerce. People want more choice and are hungry for access, fuelling demand that is more pointed. Little wonder then that in Jaipur and Lucknow, SheThePeople documented many entrepreneurs setting up e-commerce centric businesses and internet services. Going online is the first threshold of moving business out of just their hometowns. Women owners are running unique business models—one set up a local food aggregator’s forum, another one a platform that buys failed start-ups and re-pitches to investors after a revamp. In both Jaipur and Lucknow, a large number of entrepreneurs have put together local chains, bakeries and more, with an equally adept online arm. Women entrepreneurs shared insights that tear a new thought away from the stated objectives of scaling up, raising funds, growing big businesses and leveraging significantly. First, entrepreneurs needn’t always think large scale. If they meet the demand and are able to grow their business a few times per that market environment, they are good stead. Not every business needs to be national. Not all entrepreneurs need to multiply before they make money. Many have profits to show and can expand basis internal accruals. Second, most entrepreneurs—some large and established and others who were still ideating—have said that they were not in a rush for funding from investors. There is a thinking that’s emerged that start-up owners can grow ideas faster if it’s cash positive and allows for the same to churn the next cycle. Are women taking this approach because it’s practical and keeps risks at bay? Many women asserted that they were reluctant to leverage someone else’s money, leading them to opt for commerce businesses that have high margin products that allowed them to make money on every sale.

The bad and the ugly

The proliferation of misogyny via trolls on the internet speaks volumes about the ways in which the wider, global online environment may in itself be hostile towards women. In India, too, the internet has brought about a great degree of vulnerability, despite being a tool that is designed to empower. The threats come in the form of cyber-crime, trolling, harassment and sometimes physical abuse.

Women receive far more social media abuse than their male counterparts and the intensity of the abuse is higher. Nitin Pai of Takshashila Institute in Bangalore says, “There is a contest between narratives of prejudice and tradition. Whichever way you cut it—political or ideological—women are at the receiving end. If any of these narratives—conservatism, prejudice, tradition—win, women are at the losing end. It’s important for women to stand up and take this stance much more than men.” He notes how trolling attracts audience as the drama plays out for all the entire spectators.

For an action to qualify as violence—as illustrated through the UN Declaration’s emphasis on ‘psychological harm or suffering’—physical proximity and contact is not a necessary condition. While forms of violence change with the medium through which it is carried out, it continues in its new and multiple digitised avatars.[6]

We can put a phone in a woman’s hand, but how does that empowerment play out into her real life? A male dominated society continues to ostracise efforts by women to stand on their feet and take charge.

 Policy and government

A government survey shows that almost 79 percent of the women establishments are self-financed. Women entrepreneurs find it easier to turn to family to start a business with money that already belongs to them.[7]

We need policies that are holistic for women. On the economic front, many states and the centre have talked about funds to support female founders. However, most of the procedures to access those funds are complex and tedious. The government on its part is trying to simplify the process, but the fact remains that for the administration, start-ups are a new story and they too face a steep learning curve. There are women centric funds that have come up but these are not sufficient to cover the entire canvas of new ideas that are emerging. Traditional investors, on the other hand, are mostly chasing valuation driven stories.

A few years ago, the government had mooted the idea of the Bharatiya Mahila Bank. Now, it is being merged with State Bank of India. Why has it not been grown as an independent bank? How does a merger help women for whom this was to be a go-to place for funding? This is the big question: how do we set up a framework? We don’t need just one, but many policy moves to create sufficient outlets of funding and loans for women.

Policy challenges also remain, with respect to getting more women online or preventing those already in the internet universe from retreating. Social media trolling and sexual abuse are making the internet a tough place for women. Recently, the Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi said that the government would take action again trolls. However, there remains ambiguity as to how this would be implemented and whether this is a policy decision or a knee-jerk reaction.

Could the condition of women’s economy be an answer to India’s growth-stickiness? Could this be the one factor that goes beyond public spending in infrastructure? Is it time to go beyond a gender-neutral approach to recognising and rewarding efforts by women towards building the new economy?

The Industrial Revolution was one of the big turning points in economic history because it brought economic identity, empowerment and wealth to people. However, the beneficiaries were mostly men. Women only received by-product benefits from those economic returns. The revolution cut down distances, created shop floors, but it didn’t collapse any societal gender gaps.

However, with this digital revolution, women can lead the way. Not only can they contribute by being a force of growth and wealth, they can use it to shatter the glass ceiling of archaic workspaces and build their own success stories. This new context and construct of the new age and internet-dependent India we live in, there is a massive shift towards self-start companies and risk-hungry “digital and dot” projects. There is a shift from being employed to being the employer. Women are at the centre of this. One merely has to browse through Twitter or Facebook to find stories of successful women leading businesses from e-commerce to content companies. In India, there are two million SMEs registered on Facebook, and a big chunk of those are women-led businesses.

Harnessing the power of women could change the growth matrix, says a KPMG report. “Given the current economic scenario, some of the key national imperatives to propel India into the next wave of growth include creating employment opportunities for special segments such as women workforce.”

Women are at the heart of the country’s manufacturing, digital and service boom. “Making in India” is, simply, putting an idea to work.

This essay originally appeared in the third volume of Digital Debates: The CyFy Journal


[1]Accenture, “Narrowing the Gap,” https://www.accenture.com/in-en/gender-equality-research-2016

[2] Internet Live Stats, “India Internet User,” http://www.internetlivestats.com/internet-users/india/ (Accessed on August 8, 2016)

[3] Shaili Chopra, With gender parity India’s economic growth can get a boost by 27%, DNA (August 15, 2016) http://www.dnaindia.com/money/report-celebrating-india-s-independence-with-women-taking-the-lead-2245164.

[4] Sadaf Vasgare, From heading PepsiCo to the State Bank of India, these women don’t only rule their homes but the boardrooms of some leading companies, DNA (May 8, 2016) http://www.dnaindia.com/money/report-five-powerful-indian-mothers-in-business-2209997.

[5] Indo-Asian News Service, Over 1.7 Billion Women in Emerging Economies Do Not Own Mobiles Phones: GSMA, NDTV Gadgets (March 4, 2015) http://gadgets.ndtv.com/mobiles/news/over-17-billion-women-in-emerging-economies-do-not-own-mobiles-phones-gsma-667123

[6] Anja Kovacs, Richa Kaul Padte and Shobha SV, ‘Don’t Let it Stand!’ An Exploratory Study of Women and Verbal Online Abuse in India, Internet Democracy Project , April 2013, https://internetdemocracy.in/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Internet-Democracy-Project-Women-and-Online-Abuse.pdf

[7]All India Report of Sixth Economic Census, Government of India, 2012, http://mospi.nic.in/Mospi_New/upload/census_2012/AIR6EC_main.html

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