Ketika Kapoor, founder of the social enterprise ProEves, set out to empower mothers working in India’s corporate sector. By training childcare providers, counseling parents, sensitizing corporate managers, conducting research, and advocating for better policies, Kapoor seeks to accommodate working mothers’ choice to advance their careers while affecting change at a systemic level. As an employer, she also sets a positive example: ProEves’ 12-member team is composed entirely of women, mostly mothers, who work from home with flexible hours.
With its multi-faceted approach to expanding employment opportunities for women and transforming work environments, ProEves exemplifies the revolutionary potential of India’s social enterprise sector. Social enterprises already employ a larger proportion of women than their commercial counterparts. They also offer a model for gender-inclusive professional opportunities that not only employ women, but also challenge traditional understandings of the meaning and value of “women’s work.”
Our study of social enterprises in India, part of a five-country research initiative of the British Council, indicated that these organizations adopt diverse strategies for increasing women’s workforce participation.
Creating jobs with flexibility
According to a previous British Council survey, 26 percent of full-time social enterprise employees in India are women, compared to 14 percent in the private sector. In addition, 65 percent of part-time employees in Indian social enterprises are women. As discussed in the first article in this three-part series, social enterprises create jobs both for beneficiaries and for those running the venture’s operations in administrative settings and in the field.
Jobs created specifically for social enterprise beneficiaries are often entry-level but incorporate a training component to prepare women for further career advancement. Among the social enterprises represented in our survey, 92 percent of those that offer employment also undertake skill development activities.
Low pay remains a major drawback of social enterprise jobs for both staff and beneficiaries. Funders are often unwilling to allocate more than a small percentage of grants for salaries, says Anindita Majumdar, who runs EquiDiversity Foundation. For this reason, she finds it difficult to provide the kind of remuneration and benefits she would like to offer as an employer.
Still, social enterprise jobs are often better than the immediate alternatives. Sixty eight percent of the social enterprises that participated in our survey said their employees would otherwise be unemployed, or working for lower wages and in worse circumstances.
Social enterprises employ women—and on terms that are amenable to women’s needs. The majority of women who responded to our survey felt that social enterprise offered more-flexible working opportunities than jobs in the public, corporate, or NGO sectors. Our focus groups repeatedly echoed this opinion.
According to Ratna Sudarshan, trustee and director emerita of the Institute of Social Studies Trust, part-time work with benefits offers a pragmatic option for many Indian women. Part-time positions open up the possibility of achieving recognition in the formal economy while maintaining the domestic roles and responsibilities that both women and their families value.
“Women’s work” and gender stereotypes
Some study participants argued that social enterprises perpetuate gender stereotypes. As one survey respondent commented, “I see most social enterprises use the same old method of using women and men in their typical roles.” They take advantage of the most accessible and least disruptive ways for women to engage in paid work, but in doing so may reinforce stereotypes about women’s capabilities. This, they said, works against the cause of women’s empowerment.
Trina Talukdar, venture manager at Ashoka and founder of Kranti, an organization that helps young sex trafficking survivors become leaders for social change, sees this as part of a larger trend. Many government-sponsored, skill-development programs—which have gained immense popularity in India in the last decade—channel men and women into different forms of job training. Men’s jobs, often categorized as “more difficult,” are better paid than women’s.
But even social enterprises that employ women in more-traditional roles can help transform societal attitudes. Women around the world still face the challenge of societies’ devaluing informal and care labor, traditionally considered “women’s work.” As many of our informants pointed out, these duties for which women carry a disproportionate share of responsibility, are still not considered “work,” since they do not figure in the national economic calculus of the GDP.
Social enterprises that help women explicitly monetize domains like cooking and childcare can financially empower women, and galvanize a larger-scale process of recalculating and reincorporating the value of women’s labor.
Innovation at work
In her 2015 article, “Like Vacuuming, Nonprofit Work is Women’s Work,” Kristen Joiner advocated for entrepreneurial and risk-taking approaches within social organizations to disrupt the negative effects of gendering for-profit work as male and nonprofit work as female. The last few years have indeed witnessed a growing attention to synergies between entrepreneurship and gender-equality initiatives. In India, social enterprise is poised to transform the meaning of “women’s work.”
India’s social enterprise field is diverse, and social entrepreneurs choose different strategies for bringing women into the workforce. Some do so by adhering to more-traditional lines, and others consciously attempt to transform assumptions about the kinds of work women can do.
We contend that both approaches are vital. Social enterprises that employ women in more-traditional roles demonstrate the economic value of activities that society so often takes for granted as women’s presumed, unpaid contribution to the household. As a sector characterized by innovation, social enterprise in India can also pave the way in offering creative and flexible arrangements such as job sharing, in which two employees share responsibility for a single role. These innovations can ensure that women are able to enjoy fulfilling careers and personal lives.
As employees, founders, and beneficiaries, women are important players in India’s social enterprise sector. It is time for funders, accelerators, and incubators—for male and female social enterprise leaders alike—to ensure that the sector evolves toward fulfilling the promise of gender equality and inclusivity.