‘We need to debunk the stereotypes surrounding women in businesses’: Mona Shrestha Adhikari, Executive Director, EMERGE

NL Today

  • Read Time 5 min.

Dr Mona Shrestha Adhikari is the Chief Executive Officer of Enterprise for Management, Economic Reform and Gender Equality (EMERGE) and an international expert on Gender Equality and Social Inclusion. She has more than two decades of experience working in the private sector, national and international non-governmental organizations in many countries.

Nepal Live Today caught up with her to discuss the challenges women in business face and how they can be overcome. Excerpts: 

‘Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow’ is the theme of International Women’s Day this year. As a professional familiar with the international trade and development sector, how do you connect with this theme?

We need to look at how the theme ‘gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow’ and the hashtag #BreaktheBias connect with women entrepreneurs who are involved in businesses. They contribute both to the socio-economic development of the country.

Let me start with a bit of a different perspective. Women and girls are the ones who face the greatest impact of any form of disasters/climate crisis which puts their life and livelihood at risk. The climate crisis has adversely impacted existing gender inequality and gender roles. Across the world, women have less access to and control over natural resources.  They also bear primary responsibility for managing food and water security. Climate change has a huge impact on businesses. Businesses run by women are largely small in size with less capital and investment and are at the bottom of the value chain. They are often less prepared to address any form of disaster. This is yet to be ingrained in their business culture. Formulating a mitigation plan by using low resources is itself a challenging task for them. In the overall business ecosystem, they are considered as small contributors despite their crucial role – they are not yet fully recognized as key economic actors.

Many businesses have closed down due to the disasters. It is said that 40% of businesses do not reopen following a disaster and another 25% further close down within a year. We (EMERGE) conducted a study in 2020 in coordination with the Federation of Woman Entrepreneurs’ Associations of Nepal (FWEAN) and its members. The study was part of a USAID- Tayar Nepal project entitled ‘Revitalizing Women’s Business Amidst COVID-19 Pandemic’ implemented by FWEAN, EMERGE and Thulo.com. We found that such businesses bear the greatest impacts from disasters (including COVID-19). They closed down for a longer period of time, faced financial problems and/or problems related to the managing of salaries of workers and working shifts, etc. Apart from these, the supply of raw material, shortage of workers, cancellation of orders, wastage of perishable goods are other impacts.

We need to ensure women businesses do not face any discrimination and are able to contribute to a sustainable tomorrow.

Where do Nepali women stand in terms of business and economic activities?

Businesses led by women in Nepal appear to be sector concentrated. They are mostly in the sectors which are traditionally viewed as feminine sectors such as agriculture, handicraft and tourism. They are involved in these sectors because of their feminine skills – is the belief. This is a completely biased and stereotyped belief.

One can see the gendered jobs within the organization as well.  If you look at male-female power dynamics, you will find that women are mostly serving in the lower hierarchy. Yes, the situation is changing now. But how are these things linked with economic activities? When women are in a lower hierarchy, they are paid less and they get fewer facilities compared to their male counterparts. That will result in a low possibility of progress for women. This creates a domino effect as women have less power and control at work.

Development actors and policymakers too are seen to be concentrated on small size businesses when it comes to providing economic opportunities to women.  Now and again they focus on the same sectors such as poultry farming, cattle farming, agriculture, handicrafts etc. While this is essential for those businesses that address livelihood concerns, upscaling and upskilling women’s businesses are required if we are to expand and grow women’s businesses. 

It is high time that we level the playing field and relook at the interrelationship between social and economic policies. Policies and practices (be it government or others) must be revisited to break the existing phenomenon of gender inequality. Addressing gendered socio-economic structures can contribute to breaking the bias and promoting diversity and inclusion.

Economy, trade, and management have long been viewed as the domain of men. What’s your experience of coping up with this stereotype as an executive director of EMERGE? What types of stereotypes do you find prevalent and how should they be debunked?

You have raised a very pertinent issue to discuss. Women have long been involved in the economy, business and leadership. The crux of the problem is linked with the economic values that are attached to women’s contribution to the economy through trade, management and business. Until those values are not recognized and assigned, women’s roles will be limited as secondary. These problems arise due to the deep-rooted mindset, misperceptions and lack of political will for transformative change. We need to put a gender lens to better analyze the challenges women businesses in particular face.  We need to debunk the stereotypes surrounding women in businesses. 

Now we are operating in the age of digitalization and modernization. In this context, we need to find ways of actively engaging for and with women entrepreneurs. Often labor markets compartmentalize certain jobs as men’s domain and women’s domain based on gender bias. However, digitization and modernization have blurred the existing biases to a certain extent, although new forms of biases and stereotypes pop up. 

What could be the most important measures to uplift the status of women in Nepal’s business sector?

We have already understood that we cannot make progress without economic revival. Everything revolves around economic development. Prosperity is possible only through growth. I want to highlight a few and clear measures. 

The first is recognition. Contribution by women businesses and entrepreneurs should be recognized by the government, private sector and community. Now development actors and policymakers are slowly acknowledging that women businesses and entrepreneurs are also an inseparable part of the private sector. 

While a lot remains to be worked upon, small and meaningful acts of being a conscious consumer are one way of breaking the bias and contributing towards gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow.

Second, there should be a redistributive approach. We often say that women lack access and control over resources. Resources include a lot of things including training, skills, networking – financial and non-financial resources. We should keep asking certain questions – where are women’s businesses? We need to consider diversity among women’s businesses such as ethnicity, class, geography, disability,  etc. I think intersectionality is crucial.

 Third, build the capacity of women businesses. Support in boosting their confidence, train, educate and mentor them. Connect them to other economic actors in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, to local, regional and global markets. 

What do you think can contribute to empowering women’s businesses?

Women business leaders and entrepreneurs still find it challenging to get their voices heard in policymaking and implementation. Socio-economic rebuilding plans and processes should involve women’s businesses for sustainable economic growth.  

Existing women entrepreneurs and aspiring ones should know that they are deprived of facilities from the state until they are formally registered. There are many government policies that support women in businesses, yet policy awareness is weak.  Associations like FWEAN, FNCCI, CNI and other forums and networks should also play their part to join the government in policy awareness. 

We as consumers can also play a vital role in recognizing and expanding women’s business. As consumers, we can make a conscious effort in sourcing products and services that of women entrepreneurs. This can be a small drop in the ocean. But this type of behavior can have a meaningful impact on the growth of women entrepreneurship. 

While a lot remains to be worked upon, small and meaningful acts of being a conscious consumer are one way of breaking the bias and contributing towards gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow.