How difficult is it to become a woman entrepreneur in Bangladesh? Bangladesh ranked the bottom in the Mastercard Index of Women entrepreneurs 2020 among 58 countries. While it is globally recognised as the birthplace of microcredit and using small loans for empowering women microentrepreneurs, only 4.5 per cent of the businesses in the country are owned by women. Recent ecosystem research surveyed Bangladeshi women entrepreneurs to understand the barriers they face, with 87.9% of women identifying lack of capital as the biggest impediment to running their businesses. However, in the recent years, there has been a steady rise of new types of loans, trainings, and other capacity development opportunities targeting women. While such provisions seem to be available widely, why are women entrepreneurs not taking greater advantage of these opportunities and growing their businesses? And in turn, what socioeconomic inequalities might such programmes be missing in their design and implementation?
After having long, informal conversations with 20 women entrepreneurs as part of my dissertation research, a few patterns emerged that reveal a different side of the story. Living in a patriarchal, class-biased, Muslim-majority country, there are many social norms and expectations which act as invisible barriers, making it difficult for women entrepreneurs to access both financial resources (e.g. loans) and non-financial resources (e.g. business advice and other support), and succeed like their male peers.
1. Women’s financial independence may appear as a threat to the male authority
In Bangladesh, women’s independent economic activities appear to constitute a greater threat to male authority in the context of conjugal relations than in other family relations. The majority of women entrepreneurs who are or were married echoed that their husbands did not like the idea of starting a business. One shared how her husband took it quite personally, as a potential threat to his authority in the family – “When I told my husband that I’m planning to start this business, he snapped at me, ‘Am I not providing for you? Do you think I’m not capable enough to run the family?’” Unmarried women entrepreneurs also face challenges from their male “guardians” in the family. A young entrepreneur said, “Students are often discouraged by their parents to pursue entrepreneurial activities as their study might be hampered. But female students face this problem much more than male students do.”
2. Gender stereotypes underestimate women’s financial decision making ability and agency
Research shows that gender stereotypes may affect the decisions that women make and shape their chances of success in situations that value risk taking. Hence, woman entrepreneur’s decision making is likely to be influenced by concerns about stereotypes and the devaluation of her identity. This inevitably affects decision making and leads to gender differences in loss-aversion and risk-aversion behaviours. Some of the entrepreneurs mentioned being affected by negative stereotypes concerning housewives. One remarked, “Housewives like me are always underestimated. People make sarcastic remarks as if something is bound to go wrong today or tomorrow. So I find myself avoiding risks at all costs.” Another shared her frustration as her husband doubted her ability to deal with financial matters. “My husband said I could work, but I have to keep the money with him. His logic was women can’t handle this much money, it’s not safe!”
3. Social expectations regarding care work create a difficult dilemma for women
In Bangladeshi societies, a female child is socially conditioned to be a carer from her childhood, as that is what she observes all women around her doing. Married women entrepreneurs, particularly the ones with children, shared feeling overwhelmed by the care work they do at home. Being the primary caregiver, they have to push the business aside when needed and there’s simply no time for proactively seeking business advice or pursuing growth opportunities. An entrepreneur and mother of two children said, “I started my business when my baby was only 5-6 months old. After finishing the whole day’s work, when my baby and husband were asleep, only then I could open my laptop. I could try to grow my business, but I chose not to.” Another entrepreneur quoted her mother-in-law who was strongly against her decision to start a business, “You are a full time mother, and a full time wife. These two are more than enough to fill your day.”
My conversations with these women entrepreneurs revealed a known but less acknowledged fact – not all the barriers to access resources, be it money or advice, are visible. Behind successful businesses and smiling faces of a few celebrity women entrepreneurs, there are many others facing criticisms and fighting uphill battles against society. Pursuing business growth, asking for advice, taking loans – all of these seem sensible steps for an entrepreneur, but in a country like Bangladesh, it’s much more difficult if the entrepreneur also identifies as a woman. Hence, there needs to be conscious efforts to make sure women can access the advice and other forms of support they need to break the gender stereotypes that stop them from achieving their full potential as entrepreneurs.
About the author
Anjali Sarker is a Senior AFSEE Fellow at the International Inequalities Institute at LSE.