Bangladesh government is committed to achieving the sustainable development goals (SDGs) by 2030. The SDG 5 in particular aims to reduce the gender gap ensuring that women enjoy the equal right in decision making and opportunity to participate in social, economic and political activities.
It's a proven fact that without women empowerment the SDG are unlikely to deliver goods. Women's economic participation is one of the main drivers of transforming the country's status from low-income to middle-income one.
We've made a significant improvement achieving gender parity in educational sector enrolling more girls in primary and secondary levels. Bangladesh's achievements in the past decade have been exemplary in many sectors. Such achievements include the decline in infant and child mortality, poverty alleviation, and improvement in education and health.
Despite all these successes, the financial inclusion of women has not been satisfactory as only 36.3% of women participate in labour force. Most of are in low paid or vulnerable jobs. The number of women thriving as business leaders and high skilled professionals are very insignificant. Bangladesh ranked 57th out of 58 economies in the world in the Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs (MIWE 2019) with only 4.3% entrepreneurs are being female. The MIWE result revealed that the women in our society are held back due to inadequate support extended to SMEs, low financial inclusion and access to fund, social norms and cultural perception and most importantly lack of entrepreneurial supportive conditions.
The greatest deterrent of women entrepreneurs is that they are women. In a patriarchal male dominant society a woman is not getting adequate support or encouragement to thrive in the entrepreneurial landscape. The family and society infuse a pessimistic feeling in her that makes her drop a brilliant idea of becoming an entrepreneur and she perceives that performing her gender stereotype roles should be her only job. Despite being equally capable and talented as men some women are doubtful about their potential. They restrain themselves from becoming entrepreneurs due to fear of failing. According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor Women's Report, women are generally more afraid of failure than their male counterparts; this inhibits their chances of starting or running their own businesses.
It is deep-rooted in some women's mind that corporate world is meant to be dominated by males and they are most deserving to hold the top managerial positions or become a CEO. Women in leadership positions are increasingly pushing the boundaries of gender equality by utilizing their strengths and leadership qualities. Successful women entrepreneurs, leaders and professionals may share their stories and inspire others to overcome fears and come out of their comfort zone. Their self-esteem and perceived confidence need to be elevated to challenge their status quo and aspire for better opportunity. Certain African countries like Ghana, Uganda are positioned top 10 globally in terms of Women Business Ownership Rates who can be a role model for many others. Despite of being under-developed, lacking knowledge assets, financial access and supporting entrepreneurial conditions, nearly 4 out of 10 business owners are female in these countries. Women of Ghana and Uganda succeeded against all odds due to their determination, a sense of self-awareness and strong desire to improve their financial situation.
Work-life balance is one of the toughest challenges a woman has to encounter. Her family expects her to be a mother and spouse and her business or job demands her professional commitment. Sometimes balancing between the two spheres becomes impossible if the family is not supportive and consequently they are compelled to discontinue regardless of their professional achievement. An efficient way to counteract these problems are to develop support systems and efficient time management to manage responsibilities.
Several research revealed that although women have the legal right to own property, enter legal contracts, apply for loans and access credit they're frequently abstained in doing so across the countries due to gender discrimination. The common hurdles women in our country face while seeking finances are high interest rates, lack of collateral guarantees, complicated application process, lack of business track records and discriminatory treatment from financial institutions. Besides the investors are skeptical about their success, capability and commitment towards completing the venture from start-up, establishment to generating healthy returns. Financial support should be provided to women, which could translate to low-cost start-up loans, loan funds specifically aimed at women entrepreneurs, grants for business startup or investments, made available only for women.
Networks are immensely important for business where the shared values are exchanged. Lack of available advisors and mentors hinders the professional growth of women as their mobility, connectivity to the business society and networking level is very limited in our society. Networks of business women are mostly comprised of other women and smaller than that of men which put them in less advantageous positions in terms of access to information or experience sharing. A lot of women entrepreneurs are forced to operate on a small scale due to mobility restrictions and find it harder to be a member of professional organizations and other networks.
Establishment of business development and support centre for women in the cities and towns will go a long way in creating new entrepreneur and assisting the existing entrepreneurs to scale up their business. These centres will provide advisory and consultancy services to women from the startup stage ranging from developing business plan, accessing market information, access of venture capital, technology support, basic business operation skills etc. It will mentor the women led business from it's inception and continue nurturing until it becomes self-sustaining. As a result they'll get a moral support when they're juggling with start-up anxieties and get the right direction to move on. Besides the business support centre can make an alliance with the Chamber of commerce and Industries, important trade bodies of different sectors, training institute etc. to assist the budding entrepreneurs with networking and capacity building.
Today, gender parity is being talked about more than ever and the world is advancing empowering women in various directions. However, the positive side is that many women are emerging as successful business planners and entrepreneurs and the paradigm is definitely shifting towards good. I believe a woman's greatest weapon are competence and confidence to combat and shatter all the barriers. Oprah Winfrey wisely said "Excellence is the best deterrent to racism and sexism".
The writer of the article is director of Chittagong Women Chamber of Commerce and Industries (CWCCI). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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