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Solving the Second Shift Problem in Bangladesh


New research helps women entrepreneurs juggle life at home and at work

DHAKA CITY, BANGLADESH - AUGUST 22, 2021: A woman from Tangail manufacturing pottery.

More women in developing countries are turning to self-employment to support their families. Yet there’s a problem. Many must work around the clock as both entrepreneurs and family caretakers. They often sacrifice time at work to deal with conflicts at home. The result: high levels of anxiety and depression, which can hurt business growth.

What can be done to help these entrepreneurs thrive? Business education might do. Unfortunately, few courses cater to women founders juggling responsibilities at home while kick-starting a small venture. Most business programs instead develop “hard skills”—decision making and how to achieve financial goals, manage a team and build a network.

Paula López-Peña, an assistant professor of business economics at Smith School of Business, has studied the scarcity of “soft skills” (or noncognitive) entrepreneurship training. She believes most traditional programs fail to consider the kind of pressure that women owners in developing countries face. This lack of support contributes to gender gaps in firm performance and compensation.

In a recent working paper called “Managing the second shift: The impact of noncognitive skills on female entrepreneurs’ time allocation and mental health,” López-Peña examined the impact of noncognitive training on the time management and mental well-being of women entrepreneurs.

“Most woman founders in developing countries have no choice but to work a ‘double shift,’ ” she says. “If we want to take an honest approach to helping them grow their business, we must first help them find ways to balance work with family. We should take care not to pressure women into thinking they have to choose one over the other.”

Looking for balance

To further explore these issues, López-Peña conducted a study of 300 women entrepreneurs in Bangladesh. Half the group took a 10-week cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) course that included “soft skills” training in problem-solving, time management and goal setting. The other half participated in traditional counselling to deal with issues like anxiety and depression. They received no business advice or training. CBT is a form of psychotherapy that helps people gain confidence and rethink the way they deal with their problems.

What did the study find? Of the women who received CBT, 11 per cent were less likely to report symptoms of depression. They were also 23 per cent less likely to lose an hour of work to address issues at home. Women entrepreneurs who received CBT reported fewer family-related absences from work and more leisure time. “These findings suggest that domestic life is key for mental health, even more so than earnings,” López-Peña explains. 

While CBT had no noticeable impact on sales or profits, the sessions improved the owner’s overall well-being. Women who received practical advice on solving challenges at home also better managed their work time. The study shows that holistic training programs can help women entrepreneurs thrive and find balance.

From data to practice

Although this research only looked at women in developing countries, López-Peña believes her findings apply to self-employed women across the world. From Bangladesh to Canada, women shoulder heavier burdens at home than men.

“When they are faced with competing demands during the workday, most women will choose to meet their family’s needs first,” she says. “But day-to-day interruptions, like caring for a sick child, can inhibit productivity. In this way, Bangladeshi women are not so different from women in more developed countries who face similar struggles.”

To create a long-term solution for women’s needs, López-Peña plans to refine the CBT programming she offered in her study. She also hopes to trace women-founded firm performance over several months or years. “The CBT sessions from this study were effective in the short term. But I would like to explore how we can generate lasting effects,” she says. 

Integrating CBT with standard entrepreneurial development programs seems like a good idea. Most developed nations like Canada and the U.K. are already equipped with access to clinical mental health professionals, funding and university partnerships. Their governments are well-positioned to offer and refine new resources for entrepreneurs.

But in developing countries like Bangladesh, funding entrepreneurial training will not top the priority list, López-Peña acknowledges. The jury is out on whether CBT and other noncognitive training resources will increase entrepreneurial profits in the long term. So, while collecting long-term data to back up their preliminary findings, López-Peña and her colleagues will research methods to deliver these resources on a large scale and at a low cost to developing countries.

“We are only starting to understand which noncognitive skills—like perseverance, self-control or time management—matter most and how to build them,” López-Peña says. “There is still so much work left to do. But this paper is the first stone on a path to helping women entrepreneurs flourish.”

Photo: Maruf Rahman/Eyepix Group/Barcroft Media via Getty Images