Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Guest Post: If I Only Had a Banana and Two Apples

Scene: the internet/the agribusiness world in India

Introducing Niyati, my friend and a joint degree student at the Kennedy School of Government and Harvard's Business School. Niyati, like me, is spending her summer interning in Delhi. Like me, she's...a woman.


Wow, my first blog entry. I feel super privileged to be a guest blogger for Ms. Melanie Vant. Who knew that 6 months ago when I barged into a Food and Agricultural Development Professional Interest Council meeting at Petsi's coffees, that we would find ourselves in Delhi on overnight trains to Punjab, dancing to Bollywood music and discussing rural development to no end. One recurring topic is the role of women in agribusiness, which inevitably turn into a narration of various obstacles I face in my daily work. So I thought I would use this guest blog to expound on a couple of these issues.

I am working for a fruit and vegetable procurement and distribution company, along with two other women – the boss’s secretary and the head of HR. Currently, there are hurdles at three levels. First – being a woman working in business in India. Second – being a woman working in agribusiness. Thirdly – being a (single) woman working in Delhi. As I’m sure Mel has lots to say about the third, I’ll stick to the first two.

Propriety, class structure and socio-economic status continue to dictate social norms in India. As such being a woman from a “good family” and having an education is actually considered a barrier to being able to converse with each part of the value chain – such as produce distributors, and fruit vendors. Aside from being externally perceived as improper (i.e., by your family) it may actually make other parties uncomfortable, and it is difficult to build the social connections and relationships that reign supreme in this business. On top of this the odd hours and extensive field work required all but makes it impossible for women to do this type of work.

I find the same network building challenges in business more generally in India (although I should caveat that I’m basing this off of Northern experiences). Staying in the company guesthouse a male colleague would use dinner time as an opportunity to network with other colleagues. A female colleague would eat on her own, the men waiting for her to finish before beginning or she would take the tray of food in her room separately. I have witnessed late night conference calls and management meetings with a few drinks and laughs, where the one or two senior women are rarely present – or take part in only the call and not the socializing. These issues of course are not unique to India, but given the importance of who you know in business here they are more detrimental to the career success of a woman. Moreover, the clearly demarcated gender roles in more traditional businesses leave little space for a woman to even imagine how they could fit in.

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