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Building Equity For Female-Owned Businesses

By Rhea Mazumdar Singhal | March 10, 2023

Female-owned and led businesses are helping to build greater gender equity across many industries and create more inclusive workplaces for women to thrive. One entrepreneur shares tips on how to bridge the gender gap.

Walking the factory floor at our sustainable packaging company, Ecoware, there’s one aspect of our operations I’m most proud of: seeing our female staff operate the machinery. Since we started in 2009, we’ve built a growing presence of women machine operators, but it wasn’t always this way.

As an entrepreneur and employer, I’ve learned that there are specific ways we can support women to progress in their careers, upskill and access greater opportunities. The more we invest in making the workplace an inclusive, empowering environment for all genders, the better.
Indian female in green silk shirt stands in doorway

Working to close the gender gap and build greater equity for women in all walks of life is a universal challenge. Here are my tips for SMEs looking to cultivate diverse, gender-supportive workplaces with an inclusive company culture:

A one-size-fits-all approach can lead to exclusion

From women just joining to those returning to the workplace; young mothers to those with grandchildren; every woman’s circumstances are different. The readjustment after COVID-19 required all of us to change how we live and work. Whether you’re an urban professional, a white or blue-collar worker or a female business owner, your needs are different to the next person.

For example, our factory is operating in day and night shifts. Typically, it’s more difficult for women, many with families and households to take care of, to work nights. We make sure their work schedule provides the right work-life balance.

Starting a business in India has given me first-hand experience of how it’s important to be flexible in a country so diverse, with many different cultures, religions and socio-economic backgrounds. Attitudes and ways of working change from North to South and rural communities are different from cities. Overall, we want to create a fair and inclusive environment that offers the same growth platform for all women, no matter where they come from.
Indian woman in sari crosses street

As a first-time female entrepreneur in India, I had to break through cultural and language barriers and challenge negative stereotypes. It was a steep learning curve.

Create tailored, flexible solutions that empower women to achieve

Across the board, all genders, especially women, need to be offered flexible working hours and remote working opportunities if the job allows. Many women are juggling multiple roles, including caregiving or childcare.

On the SME front, we saw many women-led enterprises dissolve or suffer setbacks due to lack of funding in the wake of COVID-19. There’s an urgent need to rebalance the system. As well as mapping out onboarding strategies for those just joining your company or returning after a break, SMEs should invest in robust workplace wellness initiatives, from mental health support to community events and tangible opportunities to refresh knowledge or learn a new skill.

Given the nature of our business as a manufacturer, it’s no surprise that we started out with a male dominant workforce. I’m proud to say that 30% of our team is now female. My husband and I founded this business, and from the beginning we wanted women to be a core part of our team. It’s important to be proactive; we even asked male employees to recommend female candidates - women in their communities looking for a job - to help us redress the gender imbalance.

Our target is to make sure that we have a diverse workforce, not only in the factory but in our operations, front office, marketing and design teams. Hiring people of all genders remains a priority, especially as the impact of COVID wasn’t gender-neutral and hit women harder across the globe.
3 women in boardroom stand over charts and paperwork

A huge part of this has been upskilling and investing in the time and training to enable women to learn on the job. Typically, our female employees aren’t coming in the door and walking into machine operator roles. A lot of women start off in the packaging department, because it's an easier place to start. With our support, operating machinery is something they work up to. It’s now a real point of pride for us that we’re closing the gender gap and seeing more women working in manufacturing.

Make sure you can communicate properly – it should be a two-way street

Many of the changes that organizations need to implement to improve gender equity and working conditions for women wouldn’t be possible without honest feedback. It’s important to establish an open forum for two-way communication with your teams and co-workers.

At Ecoware, we really value visible leadership and direct communication. I sit in on as many meetings as possible at all levels and areas of the business so I can hear from everyone and empower the required action. We also established a female committee in our factory to offer support on women’s issues.

I believe the biggest thing that's helped me build trust with my team is our open-door policy. We’ve been able to build better communication, quicker solutions, stronger relationships and facilitate open conversations.

Be ready to offer solutions that provide real benefit

Taking responsibility for your workforce means pushing for changes that benefit them. It may sound simple, but one of the key things we did at Ecoware was to set up bank accounts for all our female employees.

Doing this empowered our female employees immensely and handed them financial independence overnight. Depending on where you’re operating your business, cultural nuances and local context may offer an opportunity for you to jump in and make a difference.

Increase your visibility to help activate change for women everywhere

Becoming a female entrepreneur can give you a platform to use your voice to champion and empower other women, or mentor younger, first-time female SMEs. It’s easy to pour all of your energy into running your business, but I’d encourage women to contribute as much as they can to forums and speaking panels and lend expertise to non-profits and organizations that support women.
Employees clapping hands in meeting

I’m a member of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and we focus on getting more female representation into STEM, improving the roles of women in manufacturing, and helping women to use their skills to drive the national economy. I also work with the National Commission of Women, and various schools and colleges, where we aim to cultivate female entrepreneurship and encourage female founders.

But in your own business, too, it’s important to be vocal, to champion change and have your team members see you doing so. It’s hugely important to create a strong leadership culture, establish core values and an inclusive workplace community. That includes safe spaces for women at all levels. If you’re a founder or manager, make it a priority to be visible and accessible. My team members see me on the factory floor, in the office and out in the sales field.

To help drive change from within, we run quarterly workshops on everything from health and safety to mental wellbeing to how to report inappropriate behavior. One useful tip is that if you are lacking the bandwidth of internal expertise to run similar workshops in house, reach out to local NGOs, who can step in as highly credible partners and educators if your resources are stretched.

Be an active mentor in helping women navigate what’s next

Melinda Gates once said ‘a woman with a voice is by definition a strong woman. But the search to find that voice can be remarkably difficult.’

As an employer or manager, encouraging women to move outside of their comfort zone is important. I’m aware that for many of my female employees this might be their first job. Creating possibilities for them and encouraging growth means checking in and finding out what excites them and what they may want to try next.

Investing in gender-balanced workplaces and encouraging female SMEs is absolutely essential. Globally and locally, economies can only be a success if women are contributing just as much as men towards GDP. Other stakeholders such as governments and schools need to actively work to bring women to the forefront of economic activity and entrepreneurship. SMEs are the backbone of the economy, and we need to keep it that way.

Building equity for women means bridging the digital gap

We need to encourage far greater female participation in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). There are certain sectors women are drawn to because they feel more comfortable in them. We need to build awareness of opportunities in other sectors and create a platform of equity, whether it's admission ratios or targets for fair representation across all industries, from aviation to architecture. STEM integration and fostering a digital mindset needs to start young.

During International Women’s Day this year, conversations have been focused on how tech needs to help drive change. Technology can help bridge the digital gap, which is one of the ways we can create more equity for females.
Indian dressmaker on laptop in fabric shop

During COVID, we saw a lot of women with brick-and-mortar businesses have to pivot and start selling on e-commerce platforms. Right away, they accelerated their reach. Revenues went up. But support is needed around digitalization. Some of the women’s forums I’m involved with ran workshops around how to improve e-commerce operations skills, manage different payment gateways, or use social media ads to grow customers.

Finally, no matter what industry you’re in, remember that as a female business owner you will directly impact the way other women work and grow . You have to realize that your voice is not just for you, it needs to be one that is loud and supportive for others too. Exhibiting strong values and being more inclusive will lead to greater success for girls and women everywhere. We need women to be strong allies to each other.

One more thing. To be a gender-responsive and inclusive business, prepare yourselves for conversations and scenarios that go beyond just male and female. It’s important to provide a safe and supportive environment for all genders, include those who identify as non-gender or non-binary. This is especially important for younger generations who expect to be treated with respect and inclusion.

My advice? Be the woman trying to empower other women with your learnings and experience. That way, we can all grow together. When women stand by each other, we create opportunities for one another. When we're all empowered, everyone wins.

For more tips and insights from Rhea, follow her on LinkedIn.

For advice on how to grow your business, head to our SME page here.
About the Author
the author bio

Rhea Mazumdar Singhal

CEO & Founder of Ecoware

Rhea Singhal is the founder and CEO of Ecoware, India’s first and largest sustainable packaging company. Due to her pioneering work in transforming the environmental impact of India’s packaging industry, Rhea has been appointed a World Economic Forum ‘Young Global Leader’, and commended with The Nari Shakti Puraskar, the highest civilian honour for women in India.

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