How a Business Accelerator in Bangladesh Influenced Gender Roles and Relations
This post was written by Nathalie Me-Nsope, director of Gender and Agriculture at ACDI/VOCA.
Entrepreneurship is a key strategy to build economic resilience, but women in Bangladesh face an uphill battle in taking advantage of entrepreneurial opportunities. Entrenched social and gender norms and stereotypes influence the division of domestic work and unpaid childcare within households. Women in Bangladesh bear a disproportionately heavier burden in these areas.
For many female entrepreneurs, the opportunity cost of time spent on unpaid care and domestic work is time spent managing their business enterprises. Across most of rural Bangladesh, women lack a voice in decision-making in their households and communities. The combined effect of these social norms is a lack of economic independence and limited access to productive assets, which hinders women’s ability to earn and spend money on developing their businesses and entrepreneurial skills.
An understanding of this interconnectedness between gender roles and women’s participation in economic markets is necessary to gain a full picture of the contributions that market systems development (MSD) projects make to women’s empowerment.
Through one MSD project, a business accelerator program designed specifically for female entrepreneurs in rural Bangladesh not only improved the viability of women’s businesses, but has also led to outsized impacts across other domains of empowerment. The Gender Accelerator Program (GAP) was led by the Feed the Future Bangladesh Rice and Diversified Crops (RDC) Activity — funded by USAID and implemented by ACDI/VOCA — and LightCastle Partners, a Dhaka-based business consulting company.
Designing a Business Accelerator with Women in Mind
The program began in 2018, first conducting baseline research on the barriers to female entrepreneurship in the Feed the Future zone. These barriers included low levels of financial and digital awareness, limited access to finance, a lack of business development skills, and poor business networks. Initial research also explored the feasibility of micro, small, and medium-sized enterprise (MSME) support systems, particularly those linked to sustainable agribusiness solutions and practices for women in the rice, maize, mung bean, pulses, and oilseeds value chains.
GAP facilitated workshops with industry experts, hands-on learning sessions, and theoretical sessions covering topics like business principles, business model development, financial governance, branding, and technology. Between 2018 and 2019, a total of 60 female entrepreneurs split between three cohorts across different locations completed the accelerator.
Below are key learnings about how the program influenced gender roles and relations:
1. Business and financial management skills gained through the accelerator led to growth in incomes, which promoted greater gender equity in the division of household labor.
Skepticism from spouses, a lack of family and financial support, and social norms that restrict women’s engagement in work were often major barriers to growth and learning for female entrepreneurs. Women who overcome the initial financial barriers to starting a business are often met with social, educational, or skill barriers. According to the graduates, their participation in GAP minimized these barriers. The business and financial management skills they acquired boosted their confidence and agency over managing their businesses, which led to increased income. When their businesses flourished, they earned greater respect and support from their husbands. Family members including their husbands showed a greater willingness to take on roles traditionally reserved for women to allow their spouses to invest more time in their businesses.
2. Women’s increases in income, self-confidence, and control over business decisions led to greater involvement in household decision-making.
Research found that as GAP participants’ businesses became more successful, their work became more recognized by their spouses and in-laws. This resulted in their increased participation in household decisions, such as spending. Because of this recognition earned, women increased their agency and control over their businesses as well as within their family spheres.
What Can MSD Projects Learn from These Findings?
Investing in women entrepreneurs has a ripple effect. Analysis of GAP showed a skills-based empowerment approach to female entrepreneurship could facilitate a number of outcomes for women: (1) increased economic empowerment, (2) reduction in domestic and childcare work, (3) greater agency and control in intra-household decision-making, and (4) improved social status.
GAP also illustrated how women’s empowerment in one dimension led to empowerment in another area. When carefully designed, market systems approaches, such as accelerator programs, have the power to also trigger shifts in social and gender norms at the household level, creating further positive consequences for women and their ability to benefit from economic markets. As women become successful business owners, communities and social structures shift to become more supportive.
These qualitative dimensions of women’s empowerment are important because they not only drive quantitative indicators of social inclusion in market systems projects, but also, more importantly, contribute something essential to MSD objectives, such as poverty reduction or improved nutrition. For example, enormous evidence exists to demonstrate that food security and nutrition levels improve when women have more decision-making power around intra-household spending because women tend to prioritize family food consumption needs.
As important as engaging women economically and strengthening their entrepreneurial skills is, equally as important is addressing the social and gender norms. The disparities they create could limit market systems development outcomes; but, addressing these norms and their consequences using innovative tools like GAP can catalyze more inclusive outcomes for MSD projects.
Check out the first two blogs in this series, titled, “Struggles and Successes of a Women’s Business Accelerator in Bangladesh” and “How a Women’s Business Accelerator in Bangladesh Helped Female Entrepreneurs Adapt During Times of Uncertainty.”