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Women in Startups: 10 Unique Challenges They Face

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

By Vibha Kagzi, Founder,

Women who start their own business often find the odds stacked up against them. In addition to tackling all the regular challenges that a business brings with it, women entrepreneurs have to juggle with the challenges of prejudice, trust, and support. If you are a woman aspiring to start your own venture, you need to get a reality check of what the job entails.

It’s a competitive level playing field. Being a woman does not give you any extra brownie points. On the contrary, women are often evaluated unfairly by their male counterparts. Even if they win hearts through their diligence, and perseverance, women entrepreneurs have to push harder to get a buy-in from stakeholder in their own business. From employees, to vendors, to partners and bankers, women find themselves being judged harshly simply because she is a woman doing business. Especially in male dominated sectors, women have to fight tooth and nail to get their foot in the door.

Redefining the Rigid Social Structure
Perhaps one of the biggest hurdles that women face is the societal attitude and perceptions that preempt the notion that women are not meant to be business oriented. Societal structures place women’s roles within the confines of the home. A woman is a caregiver, mother, and wife. Her duties are restricted to the walls of her house. Hence, when a woman looks outward to fulfil her career aspirations, she faces rejection, and retaliation.

In today’s world, we see women in the forefront of almost all businesses. Women entrepreneurs are on the rise all over the globe. Today we have women leaders shaping the course of nation’s destiny, effecting world affairs, creating corporate alliances, and leading from the front.  They have been the voice behind human rights, animal rights, child welfare, education, and women’s empowerment in every government and international lobbies.

Though we see a lot of change in the attitude towards women entrepreneurs, a lot more is needed. The rigidity of a patriarchal society, and gender stereotyping needs to be eliminated at the grass root level.

The Work Life Pressures
For women entrepreneurs, life and work pressures can be quite daunting. When women turn into mothers, their careers usually come to a standstill, if not wiped out completely. Some women try to get back to business while still nursing or caring for the young ones at home. Women entrepreneurs have the dual challenge of running a household, being a good mother, and playing boss. Each of these roles are challenging and stressful. There’s never an expectation from the father to stay at home to take care of the kids, but society puts the extra burden on the mom’s shoulders. Naturally, one of the roles is bound to suffer.

Underestimation of One’s True Potential
Women often tend to undermine their own potential. This has been the observation across all sectors. Women entrepreneurs are often burdened with self-doubt, low self-esteem, confidence, and drive. Hence, they undervalue themselves. They fail to pitch for a higher investment or push harder to make a sale, because they subconsciously feel that they are inferior. In some cases, women entrepreneurs take a defensive stand, and push back instead of accepting their failures and moving on. Their self-doubt comes in the way of growth.

Lack of Equal Opportunities
While there are many opportunities up for grabs, women in business are often left with scraps. That is because opportunities also come with preferential treatment. In many places, women are not allowed to do business, pitch to investors, employ, or grow. Women have to negotiate harder to earn their share. In some industries such as the film industry, women professionals are paid lesser than their male counterpart, simply because it is the ‘industry norm.’

Prejudiced Attitude
Prejudice is a social conditioning that works in conscious and subconscious levels. Prejudice may be direct, or it may exist beneath the layers. Women also judge their own tribe with prejudice. Many women in startups face negativity, mistrust, and social ostracism from other women. This makes it difficult for women in business to live up to their full potential. The prejudice often manifests in the extreme competitiveness, ruthlessness, and wall of defense that women entrepreneurs use to protect themselves. This is detrimental to the growth of any business.

Lack of Networking and Support
Most women entrepreneurs don’t know how to leverage their network. They fail to use their connections to build their business. In case of some, women entrepreneurs worry that by asking for help, they seem weak and hence they put on a defensive stand. Networking can help them reach their brand further into distant markets. By staying out of the loop, women miss out on real business opportunities and support.

Lack of Investor Confidence
Raising capital is even more difficult for women-owned firms. Despite the fact that more women entrepreneurs are approaching investors for funding, investors have greater proclivity towards male entrepreneurs. It is often easier for business man to raise capital than a woman unless the woman is an established player, and has achieved excellence and credibility in her industry. In a typical scenario, banks and investors fear that a woman is quite likely to shut shop because of her family constraints while the same does not apply to a male entrepreneur. Another point to note is that investors believe most women entrepreneurs don’t have an appetite for risk taking, and hence are not worth their while.

Limited Mobility
Owing to many reasons, mostly family related, women are less mobile in India. The lack of facilities for single women to stay in a hotel, guesthouse or rental accommodation are abysmal. Single women have to prove themselves as meritorious or credible before they are given ownership of property, or even allowed to lease out space. Legal and official documents require women to include a male member in the forms, which makes a woman feel inferior or inadequate.

Risk Aversion
By nature, women entrepreneurs are risk averse. They like to play their bets safe, and are rarely willing to put everything at stake. Men on the other hand, love to flirt with danger and are willing to place a higher bet on their stakes. This limits the woman entrepreneur’s scale of opportunities.

Lack of Leadership Skills
Despite climbing to the top, managing multiple roles, showing vision and direction, women entrepreneurs are unable to lead their teams. They face many hurdles to leadership. Men, especially those who are chauvinistic fail to take a woman as their leader. Not just that, many women subordinates find it difficult to work with a female boss. Women are either too aggressive, or too pliant. Very few women make iconic business leaders to help others walk the path.

The writer is a study abroad and career advisory. Vibha holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a Bachelors from Carnegie Mellon University.

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