The e-commerce sector in India is going through an unprecedented surge. Yet, the number of women who are part of this growth story is strikingly few. What holds them back and how has it changed the lives of the few who have broken through
Nuthana Thanu, 23, arrives with a bouquet and a smile at the front door of a Bangalore home to deliver the solitaire diamond ordered off a leading online jewellery retailer. She is pleasant and polite, well-trained in customer courtesies. One of the 100 employees of Bangalore-based logistics provider Daakiyaa Marketing and Logistics, its CEO Rohit Singh loathes calling her a “delivery person.” Instead, Singh describes her and the rest of his overwhelmingly women-dominated team as “customer delight, acquisition and retention” agents, people who can handle deliveries and face-to-face customer interactions for high-end products such as haute fashion and expensive jewellery. Nuthana makes between five and 10 personalised deliveries a day. In the male-dominated burgeoning e-commerce industry in India, whose visual representation is the two-wheeler borne deliveryman, she stands out.
So does Santosh Kumari, 33, a New Delhi housewife who recently became a driver with car-summoning app startup, Uber. Her gardener husband’s earnings were too paltry for the family and it prompted Kumari to become an on-demand driver. She now whizzes around Delhi streets in a Nissan Micra, sometimes for long hours — from 6 am to 12 noon and again from 4pm to midnight. “You choose the area you want to work in, you choose the timing and the number of hours you want to stay logged in, you choose whether to accept a ride or not,” says Kumari of the choices her employer offers her. For instance, she refuses to accept any rides around the airport at night. After a few months on the job, her monthly earnings average Rs 17,500.
The country’s e-commerce sector is going through an unprecedented surge. Some experts liken the heightened activity to two previous Indian revolutions — the software outsourcing explosion that began three decades ago and the business process outsourcing (BPO) expansion that followed quickly after. All three were set off by an entrepreneurial boom. Each has triggered a job creation wave benefitting millions. However, there is one marked difference. Unlike the IT and BPO sectors which brought diversity into prominent play in the Indian workforce for the first time, in the logistics segment of Indian e-commerce, where thousands of jobs are being created, women are strikingly absent. Which is why, Thanu and Kumari are rarities.
It is quite ironic that in India, recently, a lot of heated discussion has revolved around women at the very top of the corporate ladder. To make boards of Indian firms more diverse, the stock market regulator mandated last year that every listed firm should have at least one woman member. But the rule turned a mockery with wives, daughters, sisters and stepmothers of promoters making their way into boards. If that is the situation at the top, in the lower rungs, diversity has garnered scant attention. “When it comes to feet on the street, there are hardly any women in Indian e-commerce,” admits Vijay Ghadge, co-founder and COO of the Gurgaon-based GoJavas, a large logistics provider with over 8,000 employees which delivers in 300 cities across the country. Inside massive online retail warehouses, or what are called fulfilment centres, very few women are visible even in jobs such as packaging, inspection and shipping.
Women are also unseen in the on-demand cab revolution in Indian cities. “Sadly, they are being locked out of a huge transportation wave,” says Jyot Chadha of EMBARQ, a network for sustainable urban mobility, who watches the on-demand cab services space closely. “Driving cabs for startups like Ola and Uber is a massive economic opportunity that is well-suited to women because it offers good earning potential and flexi hours,” says Chadha.
Because safety is at the crux of drawing more women into the frontlines of e-commerce, experts like Chadha want Indian cities to work towards making it normal for women to take up jobs like driving. Currently, the number of women drivers is so small, it is pathetic, she says. And the question women drivers face most frequently from customers is the off-putting “aren’t you scared of doing this type of work?” “Such questions only heighten a woman driver’s perception of how dangerous her job might be,” says Chadha.
The lack of women in the workforce is particularly striking as the employment generation in e-commerce segments is huge. One estimate by Joseph Devasia, managing director of Antal International India, a global recruitment company, says that e-commerce will create 150,000 jobs in India in the next two-three years. Consider online retail: Thousands of delivery men are the foot soldiers of India’s online retail revolution where top brands like Flipkart, Amazon and Snapdeal each despatch around 10 million shipments every month. In Bangalore, where Flipkart and Amazon India are headquartered, packages are brought to shoppers by ubiquitous backpack-toting, bike-borne delivery men. Yes, “delivery men”.
Consider also the employment potential in the booming ride-summoning apps sector. Leading cab-hiring app startup Ola operates in 100 cities and says it will expand to 200 within the year. In each of these cities, it is partnering with thousands of drivers. Its San Francisco-based rival Uber operated in 11 Indian cities until recently. It has added seven more cities this month. Expectedly, demand is soaring for last-mile employees such as delivery persons and drivers. Yet, such opportunities are closed off for women.
A year ago, Ghadge of GoJavas undertook something of a social experiment. He mandated his team to set up a branch populated entirely by women staff, right down to the last delivery person. The branch was supposed to launch in southern India. But the idea fizzled out even before it took off. “Nobody was able to execute it,” admits Ghadge.
In yet another attempt in Bangalore, where a customer, an online retailer of lingerie, wanted to experiment with women delivery agents, GoJavas hired a few women and readied for a pilot. “But the deliveries became exorbitantly expensive as, to ensure delivery women’s safety, we needed a driver and a security guard to escort each of them,” said Ghadge. “Even one unsavoury incident could kill a startup like ours, we cannot afford to take such chances,” he says candidly.
Ghadge’s anxieties about recruiting women are echoed by Nikhil Saigal, founder and director of Home Safe, a startup that offers on-call chauffeurs in New Delhi. The city became infamous after the alleged rape of a multinational employee by the driver of a cab she had summoned on Uber. Even before that incident, Saigal had been trying to create a supply of women drivers to meet demand from seniors and women customers in the evening, as women drivers are seen as the solution to the after-dark safety issue in cities such as Delhi.
But it has been a challenge. “India is not an ideal place to pick up driving as a skill in a short time; roads in most Indian cities are especially hostile for women drivers,” says Saigal. So, while the demand is rising, Home Safe does not have a single woman driver on its roster. “Technology has turned many traditional industries upside down in e-commerce, but technology has also failed to make e-commerce gender diverse,” he says.
Radhika Aggarwal, co-founder and chief business officer of the Gurgaon-based online shopping platform, ShopClues, says that women are well-represented in the mid and higher rungs of consumer internet firms, but diversity has not reached the grassroots yet. ShopClues’ delivery partners do not have women delivery persons. Aggarwal says she herself would be extremely uncomfortable sending women to customers’ homes at night. “Sure, I want women to drive my delivery trucks. But I also want to be confident that they will be safe,” she says.
E-commerce has set off a huge job surge, says Aggarwal, but drawing women into the lower rungs will require a systemic change. “For instance, why does Gurgaon have a regulation which forbids women from working after 7 pm except in the IT sector? Women workers should not be asking for a safe society, women should get a safe society,” she says. Aggarwal recalls travelling in an auto rickshaw in Pune driven by a woman whom she asked to photograph. “I should not be taking that photograph, it should be normal to have a woman autorickshaw driver; but it isn’t,” she says.
Recently, there have been a few concerted efforts to bring diversity into the e-commerce workforce. For instance, in March this year, Uber announced a massive commitment to bring aboard hundreds of women as driver partners. “We want to create 50,000 jobs for women on our platform by 2020 in this country where driving was traditionally considered a man’s job,” says Deval Delivala, safety lead for Uber India. The startup has set up a partnership to train, certify and hire women drivers.
A few months into the programme, the going has not been easy. “There are very few commercially-licensed women drivers in India that we can hire, so we are investing time, energy and resources to change this,” says Delivala. That apart, challenges can range from the lack of restrooms on the streets to harassment from fellow (male) drivers. “Men see female drivers as intruding on their domain, a threat to their income opportunity, so there’s quite a backlash,” says Chadha.
In Bangalore, the year-old Daakiyaa Marketing calls his last-mile service employing women “brand envoys” as experimental. Singh wants to take no chances with the safety of the women he employs. Daakiyaa equips them with GPRS-enabled smartphones loaded with an app that has a one-touch distress button. In some situations, the woman is accompanied by a team.
Daakiyaa and Uber have made a start. But they represent just the tip of e-commerce jobs. Other startups in the sector have to follow suit quickly and then, perhaps, women could still be a part of the last mile of India’s e-commerce revolution. That is the disruption that the sector should aim for.
However, the few women who are part of the set-up are hopeful that things will get better over time. Bharathi Veerath, 38, is Uber’s first woman driver.
Bangalore-based Veerath joined the startup in October 2013, when women cab drivers were unheard of. She logs in each morning at 8 am on to the Uber app on her iPhone and drives customers around the city until lunch. She keeps her afternoons free for her family — her mother, her brother and sister — who live with her. Evenings are busy again and she works until midnight sometimes. When she feels tired, Veerath gives herself a day off but no more than four days in a month. So far, customer response to a woman driver has been very encouraging, she says. She handles up to 10 trips a day but on some days she breaks off after just a couple. Veerath bought her car, a Fiord Fiesta, through her employment partner Uber’s vehicle-financing programme. “I make an average of Rs 60,000 a month and it covers my monthly car loan repayment, household and personal expenses.” Her job has ensured that she can comfortably support her family. Veerath says she loves being the boss and employee, all rolled into one. “E-commerce made me an entrepreneur.”
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