In many ways, the experiences of women in family businesses in India are different from those elsewhere – especially those in the West, which has traditionally been the focus of family business research. And within India itself, the experiences of women in family businesses differ widely based on their social, cultural, economic, institutional, geographical, and generational contexts.
In this episode of WiFB, Nupur Pavan Bang, Associate Director at the Thomas Schmidheiny Centre for Family Enterprise, explores the role and status of women in family businesses in India, partially through the lens of her experiences. Nupur examines the specific challenges these women face and how those challenges can be overcome by both genders championing equality. She also discusses how these women’s roles are beginning to change and offers advice for those who wish to amplify their voices.
- The contributions of women often go unrecognised: It is not uncommon for women to have complete responsibility for the household while working in the family business. However, as their role in the business is often perceived as secondary, their professional contributions aren’t celebrated, and they miss out on leadership and ownership opportunities.
- Women face challenges as in-laws: A daughter growing up in a family business is often viewed on par with any brothers she may have and usually won’t face too much discrimination. However, a daughter-in-law is treated very differently in the Indian society in terms of domestic expectations and cultural traditions, and these can become particularly difficult to manage alongside work.
- Women’s roles in the family business are changing: The decreasing size of the average Indian household means daughters are more likely to become involved in the business, and the increase in education for women in India complements this trend. There is also an increased awareness of women’s achievements, rights and opportunities globally, as well as in India, due to media access and widespread digitalisation. Additionally, certain government regulations have helped the cause, such as changes to inheritance laws giving rights to daughters.
- Equality needs champions: Indian women must find their path in business while navigating a society that often perceives them as demanding too much if they ask for anything at all. If men also start demanding equality for women and challenging the discrimination they see, the pace of change will accelerate.
R: Here we are, again, for another episode of the Women in Family Business podcast. I’m super happy to have Nupur Pavan Bang with us again here on this podcast. Nupur, welcome.
N: Thank you. Thank you, Ramia.
R: We were just saying in the prep talks, Nupur, how we’re looking forward to today because we are going to tackle a topic without mercy and we’re going to really dig into it, We are going to be talking about women in family business, in the context of Indian family businesses and where they are, what their status is like, what the challenges are that they’re facing specifically, and where you think those challenges come from and how they can be overcome.
But most importantly, Nupur, I think it’s really important to set the context here. I know that you come from a family business as well though you’ve now dedicated your life to an academic career in the family business field, of course. But you come from a family business background, so I always say to people like you, “You know the pain. You understand the pain.”
N: Absolutely. I always tell my students or the families that I talk to that whatever I research, whatever I teach, I’ve actually lived it. Growing up, I’ve seen those things play out in my family. I’ve experienced it [crosstalk]
R: Some people have very positive experiences with their family businesses, never encounter any major problems. Others go through borderline traumatic experiences with their family enterprises. We know the spectrum is very, very wide.
R: For you, when was the first time that you were like, “Hold on a second. Something doesn’t seem quite balanced here in the way that we’re handling this”? Do you remember that moment?
N:I won’t say it was one moment, but I would say quite early on. Probably when I was in my teens. I started to realize that women in my household really were doing two jobs because they had the full-time responsibility of the household, but they did help quite a bit in the businesses as well. So, while they were playing just a supporting role, it was quite significant and they didn’t really have any ownership. That didn’t really count in their portfolio while they were supporting the business. It was considered as invisible support. Nobody really counted that as something that they were doing. It started to feel like they were really doing a lot. On the contrary, the men would not come and provide even a little bit of support at home. I think from my teenage years I started to feel that.
It’s really quite different growing up a woman in India versus being a woman in many other parts of the world, especially the Western world. I would say that the family business research globally has been largely focused on the developed world and it’s quite different in India hence these things must be told.
My religion is Hindu and my Varna. Varna is a form of classification that is supposed to originate from the creator himself, from God himself. My varna is Baniya. So, Baniya is supposed to be a trading class. Within this trading class, so within this varna, I belong to the Marwari community. So, the Marwari community is one of the most successful trading communities in India and it is said that close to 6% to 7% of the market capitalization of the Bombay Stock Exchange would be owned by the Marwari community. It’s pretty Marwari-dominated. The economy is quite Marwari-dominated.
So, the people from this community, they primarily find their roots in the Northwest state of Rajasthan in India. I was born in a small town called Ranga in Bihar, which is in the east of India. So, basically, five generations ago, my forefathers came from Rajasthan to Bihar and settled in Bihar in search of work. This community is known to be very, very adaptive, entrepreneurial, risk-taking, very good with numbers. I was born as a woman in this family, which is Hindu, which is Baniya, which is Marwari, in a small town, and I’m the sum total of these identities.
R: All these factors come together in who you are.
N: Marwari community as such is extremely deeply rooted in culture, traditions. Even now you’ll find a lot of joint families in Marwari community. So, the experiences of women in a Marwari household is really the sum total of many of these things, and of course, our individual experiences may differ a little bit here and there. The experiences of women differ widely based on their social, cultural, economic, institutional, geographical context.
R: You also said something which I think is such an important word, which is the word invisible. Can you maybe talk to us a little bit more about describing what particularly are those invisible roles that you see the women in your society take in that you think are crucial to the success of the family enterprise, but that very often go unrecognized? Can you give us an example, maybe?
N: Absolutely. First and foremost, women of the household typically are around the area where men eat or men sit down and they’re just generally chatting. So, women are around and they know what is going on in the business quite a bit. So, many a time they fill in when the men folks are traveling or someone is sick or someone just needs support if there’s too much work. Then the women fill in at the right time. Without being said, they understand when there’s a bad patch going on, so keep things moving at home without really disturbing the primary driver of the businesses too much. So, women do these kinds of things quite a bit. In fact, in our family, we have three to four different businesses handled by different uncles. We live in a joint family, so any woman can actually go and fill in for any other man. They know that much of the business that they can let the day-to-day operations go on without much disturbance if someone is not available.
R: What do you feel are the biggest changes that have promoted, say, a more open conversation about the role of women in family enterprises and family wealth and what has been positive in your view and what has been like, where do we still lag behind or what has even been negative in your point of view around evolution of this conversation?
N: The first thing definitely is the decreasing family sizes in India. So, earlier it was very common for someone to have 4, 5 children or even 7, 8, 10 children, but now most of the households have 2 or 1 child. If that child happens to be a daughter, you don’t have a choice. You have to think of passing on at least the ownership of the business to the daughter. If you happen to have one son, one daughter, even then your business might need more hands than just one son because your business is growing and then you start thinking of how do you even allow your daughter to be in the business. So, that’s one. That family sizes have become smaller.
If I look at the education side, even there, because probably because of the decreasing family sizes, again, daughters are studying as well as the sons are. The literacy rate for women is almost that par with that of men, especially in the urban areas.
The third thing is the awareness itself both in the previous generation and in our generation. There’s a lot of awareness probably because of media, open communications, digital world. So, we know what is happening around the world. We are much more role models. We aspire to do more and hence we speak out more about our own aspirations. Even the previous generation, they see other women doing well and they’re more open to these things now.
Plus, there are certain government, I would say, regulations or steps which have worked in the right direction. For example, the inheritance law was changed, which allowed the women also to inherit their father’s property or husband’s property. We also had, especially on the corporate side, we’ve had a regulation which talked about every listed company must have a woman on board and things like that. So, entry into business became easier for many women because of education, awareness, and slightly changing mindsets. These are all the positives which have happened.
Something where we really lag behind is the overall mindset in the society, and I’m not talking about the men, it’s also the women themselves. That is really related to the very, very huge workload which women carry because we have not evolved as a society to ensure that men and women carry household responsibilities equally.
R: Do you feel like there is some progression there in terms of relationships between men and women, how women get to communicate to their husbands as well what it is that they want, what it is that they expect in a relationship? Do you see a big difference between the last generation and this one?
N: Yes. Again, it mostly stems from the fact that our generation is much more assertive and more vocal about our wants and our aspirations. In our minds, we treat ourselves as equal to the men, so we assert ourselves much more. But in the previous generation, I think it was pretty unwritten but it was there that women are subordinate to men and they were more resigned to the fact that either they cannot work or if they work their work is not so important. There will always be outliers. There are men I know who probably contribute more to the household than women do and there are men and women I know who support their next generation completely irrespective of gender. Gender doesn’t play a role. But here I’m talking about the larger society and generalizing the big numbers.
R: Here, I want to talk to you about what I know is a big topic in your society, which is also a lot of the time women get married and join their in-laws in the house and the family of the in-laws and have to leave their own families and the support of their own family as well behind. So, talk to us a little bit about the challenges women maybe face in that particular moment and what it is like for them to maybe establish their roles within a household as an in-law and whether you’ve seen women who have successfully done that and even been able to contribute to the business as an in-law. What have you seen in that conversation because I know that can be a big issue?
N: There is a lot of difference between a daughter and a daughter-in-law. A daughter, as she’s growing up, she is probably at par with her brother or with the other sons in the household and she doesn’t face too much discrimination, especially in a family… We’re talking about families which can afford to send all their children to good schools and get them educated.
But a daughter-in-law is treated very differently from a daughter. So, a daughter-in-law is expected to take care of the household completely, whether she is working full time or not. So, even if she’s working full time, the household responsibility is hers. On top of that, as I told you, the reason why I gave you that big background of I come from a Marwari family and all those things, because the cultural context is such that there are just so many rituals, traditions, prayers, which are expected only out of daughter-in-laws most of the time and it becomes very difficult to manage those along with work. It’s very difficult to find a way around these things and these things are not expected out of men, fortunately for them. It’s not like I don’t want to force it on men, but somehow these are more women-centric rituals and women-centric traditions and cultures.
R: Now let’s come to the children, let’s come to that next generation, which then are raised by a mother who potentially has every reason in the world to resent the family business because she’s being made to carry so much of the burden very often without much recognition. So, how do you see that play out also in the next generation’s relationship with the family business because the mother has a great influence, of course, on the children in the early years particularly? What have you seen there?
N: There are three aspects to it. The first aspect is that the daughters-in-law really don’t complain too much openly. That’s what I observe. Mainly because if they complain too much, it’ll be, “Okay. Don’t go to work. If you’re not able to do it, don’t go to work.” So, it is a choice between having to answer that question that “If you’re not able to manage, don’t go. Who’s asking you to go?” So, the second aspect of what I’m going to say, and that is because we know that help is perhaps not going to come from other quarters, we try and make our ecosystem so strong on our own. So, we tap into various helps to make sure that things run more smoothly at home. Remember the responsibility still lies with us. We’re not getting rid of the responsibility. We’re just getting rid of the fact that we don’t have to be physically present to do it. I don’t have to cook, but I have to make sure that the cook comes. I have to make sure that when the cook comes, what is to be cooked.
The third aspect is really we don’t let or allow these things to rub onto our children as much as possible because ultimately we know that times are changing. It is much better for me than it was for my mother and I know that it’s going to be much better for them than it is for me. I don’t want that negativity to rub onto them. At the same time, I don’t want them to resent anyone in the family, resent the family business, or grow up saying that this is not something for me. So, I want them to see it as an important legacy that our family carries and hence they must take pride in being a part of this family and this business.
R: You’re raising another point which I find really interesting. Which is, where does your psychological ownership and actual ownership lie? Because as you’re saying, the inheritance laws have been changed in a lot of countries, so, I imagine this scenario now happening in India very often where a woman gets married coming from a family business and marries into another family business but will still inherit or will still want to work in her family’s enterprise. You’re describing the demands on women in those marriages as being excessive and really high. Is this an additional burden? Does it often come to just a trade-off decision, just being like, “I’m going to have to leave this or leave that behind basically”? What do you see in that scenario? What is going to happen to women dealing with that double load of responsibility?
N: I think in smaller family businesses, the SMEs, typically the women after they get married, join their husband’s family business, typically. I don’t have any research data to prove this, but these are my observations and suppositions. But, in larger family businesses, I think because larger family businesses have more scope for opening up branches in other cities and their businesses are more spread out, the women can continue to work in their father’s business even after they’ve moved away and married into some other family. But I’ve not seen too many cases where they are involved in both the husband’s business as well as the father’s business.
R: Also, we know marriages don’t always work out; there’s a high rate of divorce now even in India as well as we know, so where does a woman go after that?
N: I think there is a lot of awareness now about separation of ownership from management, and there is a lot of openness or there is a lot of acceptance of women being owners. Even if there are sons, but still women also get ownership of the business.
As far as the governance from a family business angle is concerned on ownership and gender, I think that separation of ownership versus management, it also allows the women to be just owners, move to a different city, get benefits in terms of dividends, and understand that if there is someone else taking care of the business, they will be paid a salary over and above the dividends.
R: So, for those men that wish to take a more active role in championing the causes of women in India in the family enterprise and specifically for those men sitting on the boards or for those next gens inheriting more than their sisters, what is your advice on what is the best thing that they can start doing right away to make sure that they can help that the cause at least is laid on the table frequently, at least that the women start being heard more? What do you think is the best advice that you can give these men that want to champion women’s causes?
N: I believe that these men must start demanding equality, even if it inconveniences them or even if it doesn’t work in their favor. For example, if a son is given 60% shareholding versus the daughter being given 40%, the son should demand equality. Say that “We are both equally educated, we are both smart and everything. So why would you give me 60%? Let there be equality.” So, once the men also start demanding equality, then people who are not giving it will start taking it seriously.
Culturally, we are that kind of society that you should never ask. So, when we ask, it is not seen in good light that we are asking for too much.
But if men say that “No. We demand equality. Why are you discriminating?” then there would be a faster pace of change than what it is today. So, if men start speaking, then definitely there’ll be a faster pace of change.
R: On the other hand, for the women facing these situations and facing dissatisfaction with those situations, what is your biggest advice on communication for them around these issues? In terms of tricks and tips that you have for women on how to circumvent these prejudices but still make their point, what would be your advice?
N: I wish I knew the right answer. Even my life would have been much more easier. I’ve realized one thing that you need to say no once. It’s the first time that you say no which is really difficult. The first time that you say no, it is uncomfortable for the person you have said no to as well. But then if you say no firmly and if you make your point firmly without the drama really… So, sometimes we need to be more poised and firm in what we are communicating. Then the message goes across better. So I would say if we are not comfortable with something, to recognize that and say it firmly, communicate that “I’m not comfortable, and still if I’m expected to do something like this, I would do it, but I would not be happy.” If that doesn’t work, then maybe another time repeat it again more firmly. But we have to start saying no once in a while but in a nicer way without the drama. That’s what I would really say. I’ve seen it work once in a while.
R: Such good advice from Nupur here today on the podcast. For men, we ask you to kindly step up and champion equality. We will move forward faster. For women out there, say no once and be firm about it and see what happens and how the dynamics shift. Very good advice, Nupur. Thank you so much for joining us on WIFB podcast today.
N: Thank you.