Women’s involvement in paid labour is typically celebrated as a necessary precursor to improving economic outcomes and reducing poverty, especially in the Global South. Entrepreneurship, in particular, is argued to advance women’s economic interests while affording them the flexibility required to meet their childcare and household demands. The present study calls such portrayals into question, arguing that the concept of entrepreneurship as it applies to women’s work masks many of the uncertainties and contradictions that accompany being one’s own boss while working at home. Interviews with female entrepreneurs engaged in home-based work in Ahmedabad, India reveal that entrepreneurship is experienced as a mixed blessing. For example, capital generation and autonomy, two attributes touted as positive facets of entrepreneurship, make it more difficult for women to accomplish both their paid labour and household labour. The author argues that contrary to organizations’ (such as the World Bank) rhetoric that gender equality is a positive outcome of women’s participation in paid labour markets; one-dimensional understandings of entrepreneurship misrepresent women’s experiences working in informal economies.
Women’s entrepreneurship has been hailed as a positive intervention for improving economies in the Global South. In the World Bank’s 2012 Word Development Report, gender equality is touted as “smart economics” for its ability to enhance productivity. Entrepreneurship is especially highly regarded for the degree of autonomy and capital it promises to generate. The present study calls such positive characterizations of women’s entrepreneurship into question.
Based on 10 months of fieldwork in Ahmedabad, India, as well as 30 interviews with women engaged in home-based garment work, the study examines how women perceive themselves as workers, and how this relates to economic accounts of the benefits of entrepreneurship. Home-based work is an important site for understanding how women’s engagement with paid labour is experienced. Particularly in India, home-based work may be a viable strategy for women to provide a financial contribution to their household earnings in a context where failing to uphold gendered and cultural expectations of caste and religion (by engaging in paid labour outside of the home) would result in stigmatization.
Despite the potential upsides of pursuing entrepreneurial work at home, this study finds two characteristics that complicate women’s experiences as entrepreneurs: (1) investment, and (2) autonomy.
First, investing in one’s work is thought to be beneficial because it incentivizes entrepreneurs to minimize overhead and maximize profits. Productions costs also motivate a long-term financial planning outlook, since individual entrepreneurs wish to extend and enlarge thei