Today’s Indian woman is making a mark across diverse fields – from business and politics to sports and social work – breaking stereotypes and smashing glass ceilings along the way. It is interesting to note that 6 of the Top 10 Banks in India are headed by women and 12% of India’s 5,100 pilots are women. Likewise, there is a huge surge in women-led start-ups in IT & Biotechnology. Witnessing this change is exciting and energizing as there is a newfound confidence among Indian women, a sense of self-belief that they can excel in any domain, compete with their male counterparts on a level-playing field, attain leadership positions and become role models for all.
This is a far cry from the situation in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when women professionals in India were stereotyped as “unreliable, unprofessional and high risk!” When I started Biocon in 1978, as a young, 25-year-old woman entrepreneur I had to fight against these very stereotypes.
Entrepreneurship was an unusual ‘career’ choice for women in the ‘70s and biotechnology was unheard of as an industry sector. So here I was, daring to start a business in a male dominated society in a sector that no one had heard of! , To top it all, I had no business background and had limited financial resources. Most of my friends thought I was being foolish trying to take on such a challenge when I could be married and raising a family instead! But that was not me. From the very beginning I wanted to be a change agent in society and wanted to transform the way society perceived and treated women. I wanted to challenge this concept that women couldn’t do some roles that men could.
Encouraged by my father, I decided to pursue a career path in business and I was willing to face the odds. There were many odds I had to deal with: Banks were unwilling to lend to me, professionals did not want to work for me and even suppliers did not want to deal with me all because I was a woman! Bankers told me that I was considered ‘high risk’ in the business world. Professionals felt that I could not provide them ‘job security’ and suppliers told me they were reluctant to give me credit because they did not have confidence in my business abilities. Of course, I was infuriated and insulted but took it on as a challenge to build my credibility.
I started building my company Biocon with a sense of purpose and spirit of challenge. I was determined to bridge the gender divide and decided that I would build a company where women scientists could pursue their research dreams, where women professionals would work shoulder to shoulder with their male colleagues and where men and women had mutual respect. My journey of building Biocon was about experimentation and learning – trying out ideas and overcoming challenges that are a part and parcel of entrepreneurship and business. In time I succeeded in building one of Asia’s largest biopharmaceutical enterprises because I truly believed that innovation has no gender barrier.
Mind-sets Need to Change
Even as millions of Indian women are succeeding at work, there are millions of others who continue to live under the cast of repressive mind-sets. This finds expression in gender discrimination, female foeticide, preference for the male child, denying education to girls and extends to gender stereotypes in behaviour, marriage and career. A large number of people still believe that women are capable of performing only limited roles at home or certain types of jobs. This mind-set, among both men and women, needs to change if progress is to be made.
As a nation and as a larger part of the society we are actively addressing these issues. The Indian government’s ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’ (‘Save the Girl Chid, Educate the Girl Child’) campaign is an expression of this intent as it seeks to protect and empower girls. Several women centric programs aimed at ensuring their education, health, economic security, safety and fundamental rights are being implemented by both governmental and non-governmental organizations in the rural areas under the ‘Padhega India to Badhega India’ (India Studies, India Prospers) initiative, as we know that only ‘education’ will lead to economic development in the country.
Women have a vital role to play in India’s future as the country looks to gain global economic leadership. They should be encouraged to cultivate a sense of self-confidence and determination even in the face of failure. Coupled with their hard work and perseverance, women can achieve anything they set their minds on. I firmly believe the empowerment of the Indian woman will unleash ‘Shakti,’ or the feminine creative power, and lead to transformational societal change in India in the coming days.
This piece was first published in the Online Version of The Week Magazine on March 08, 2016