Unlocking the potential of India’s female workforce: the crucial role for small and medium-sized enterprises.

- Dennis Curry, Deputy Resident Representative

March 31, 2023

(Left to Right): Yogesh Kumar – Founder, Even Cargo; Manjari Sharma – Founder, Farm Didi; Vandana Suri – Founder, Taxshe and Pritish Chatterjee – Founder, Savera being felicitated as SME Champions by UNDP’s Youth Climate Champion Prajakta Koli

UNDP India

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) play a critical role in economic development by driving innovation, creating jobs, and promoting entrepreneurship. SMEs also have the potential to be key players in promoting gender equality and women's economic empowerment.

India's challenges with its female labour force participation rate are well-documented. While the country has been on a high growth trajectory, women’s participation in the economy continues to be limited. Women in India are subject to a number of social and economic disadvantages that manifest from birth, continue throughout their lives, and that limit their access and opportunities. However within this challenge lies huge untapped potential and according to Bloomberg, closing the employment gap between men and women could expand India’s GDP by close to a third by 2050.

It is heartening to see SMEs in India that are recognizing the inherent potential that gender equality brings and are taking proactive steps to promote it. While increasing women's participation in the economy is a complex problem - and there is no panacea to address this - there is abundant evidence that supportive and inclusive workplaces can be a big driver of change.

Last year on International Women’s Day, UNDP India launched a campaign called women@work to spotlight India’s female workforce participation and our collective responsibility to invest in it. We called for nominations from the MSME sector for gender champions who put women in non-traditional roles, encouraging them to learn and lead. Out of several nominations received, four remarkable winners were carefully selected - SMEs who are leading by example and investing in a women-led workforce. 

UNDP recently released a short film on these SME champions, chronicling their journey in unlocking the potential of the female labour force in unique and inspiring ways. They have found women to be dynamic, loyal employees who are capable of leading with empathy. To these SMEs, building a strong women's workforce is more than a social cause - it makes business sense. They have used innovative strategies to empower their female employees and create a supportive and inclusive work environment. 

For instance, Farm Didi is a social enterprise, with a twofold mission; to provide authentic, natural and healthy food to consumers while empowering rural women. It encourages leadership development among its staff through regular training sessions and informal meetings. Farm Didi has so far worked with 1,500 women entrepreneurs, that take part in 150 self-help groups (SHGs) in over 45 villages of Maharashtra. About 20-50% of the earnings go back to the SHGs and there has been a 3 to 4 times increase in the SHGs’ income. 

TaxShe, a cab service focused on safe mobility of women and children, has created a sisterhood of women mentors among its workforce in Bengaluru. Senior women colleagues share their experience with their juniors, creating a tight bond among all women staff. The founder, Vandana Suri has reported that in the last year, they have trained over 1,500 women in driving and developed a franchise model to support women who have lost their jobs during the pandemic. There are 13 franchisee partners that have signed up with Taxshe across India. The organization also sensitizes men during onboarding about being gender-sensitive, and respectful and supportive towards women, setting the tone for conduct from male counterparts. TaxShe conducts gender sensitivity programs, and programs on domestic violence issues as part of their onboarding programs for all colleagues.

Aurangabad-based Savera, which manufactures a wide range of home furniture and furnishing products for a global market, has a 60% strong women workforce and offers wage parity for women and men. It believes that men should see their women colleagues as equals without any incentives. From the beginning, they have had a very strict policy on Prevention of Sexual Harassment at Workplace (POSH) and with no tolerance to violations. The company decided to lift the burden of unpaid care work that women take on by building a creche facility on the premises for employees to bring their children to work. It also offers transportation for those on the night shift, thereby taking care of their safety.

Even Cargo is a social enterprise that employs women from resource-poor communities and trains them for employment opportunities with major e-commerce companies. It has a fleet of 250 women riders and offers its services across New Delhi and several north Indian cities. They have helped women to purchase their own vehicles at discounted prices and put them in touch with financial organizations to get loans at lower interest rates. Even Cargo also trains its women in road safety, GPS navigation, personal safety and customer relations among other skills. The company reports that the family income of their women employees has gone up by as much as 200%.

SMEs make up the majority of businesses in India and are the largest job creator after the agriculture sector. The lessons from these SME champions show that supporting gender equality is not only the right thing to do but can also support businesses to grow.

However, while creating an enabling environment of women to enter and succeed in the workplace can be supported at the individual SME level, it also requires a whole of society approach. Policies and initiatives that promote equal pay, equal opportunities for training and career advancement, and measures to ensure that women do not suffer discrimination in the workplace can foster a wider environment that supports women to enter the formal workforce. Government, civil society and communities need to work with businesses to fully unlock the huge potential that women’s labour force participation can bring to India.

"When women feel safe, at par and taken care of, they automatically want to come out and work," is how Pritika Chatterjee, Director of Marketing, sums up Savera’s experience. We could all do well to remember that.