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Business Today

Soft Power: Women leaders

     Print Edition: Jan 6, 2013

My husband took a break from work for two years and I was the one paying the bills," says 39-year-old Manisha Lath Gupta, Chief Marketing Officer of Axis Bank. "People would often ask me 'How can you let your husband sit in the house while you work?'" It did not bother her at all. Gupta's attitude represents the changing mindset in the workplace in India.

No doubt India still has some way to go before women stand on an equal footing with men at the workplace. The World Economic Forum Gender Gap Index shows that only five per cent of working women in India have made it to senior leadership positions, much lower than the global average of 20 per cent.

Overall too India ranks 113 of 135 countries on the index. Even so, there is no doubt that there are more Indian women leaders in business than ever before, thanks to the resilience and gung ho spirit that women like Gupta display. Leading the charge are role models such as Chanda Kochhar, Managing Director and CEO of ICICI Bank, Kalpana Morparia, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Chairman and Managing Director of Biocon, and more. A new generation of young women has also followed in their footsteps, such as Sangeeta Pendurkar, 46, MD of Kellogg's India, or Kirthiga Reddy, 40, Head, Facebook India.

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ICICI Bank is one institution that has had a host of women in senior management positions . But Axis Bank too is not far behind, with CEO Shikha Sharma, Manisha 'Lath' Gupta, and Manjiri Rele, who is Senior Vice President (HR) in top roles. There are also lesser known examples of such companies, such as the Mumbai-headquartered NRB Bearings which has both a woman MD, Harshbeena S. Zaveri, and a woman Chief Financial Officer, Jyotsna Sharma. "My first job happened because the company was looking for a high-skilled chartered accountant, but would pay so little that only a woman would have agreed to take it up out of compulsion," says Sharma.

5% of working women in India have made it to senior leadership positions, much lower than the global average of 20%.

Women entrepreneurs too have made their mark. When Neha Kirpal, 32, decided to start the India Art Fair, many urged her not to. "But that was precisely what egged me on," she says. In its first year, 2008, the fair had 34 galleries and just one country participating; today more than 100 galleries and 22 countries do so. Another such example is Devita Saraf, who founded the luxury electronics company Vu Technologies in 2006, and has gone about aggressively creating a market for her niche business. In recent years, many companies have realised the virtues of diversity at the workplace. It brings a more comprehensive perspective to every decision.

"Women tend to weigh decisions from as many perspectives as possible," says Kochhar. Some companies, having understood this, have been tweaking their HR practices to enable women to realise their potential. Flexibility in work timings is frequently allowed. "From an extra benefit, it is becoming a business core," says Sairee Chahal, Co-founder of Fleximoms, which helps women connect with companies offering flexible work solutions.

But again, many have yet to see the light. "Nearly 30 to 35 per cent [working] women drop off when they get to the mid-level," says Axis Bank's Rele. "If an organisation offers flexible timings and the flexibility to work from home, it would really help."

The World Bank's annual World Development Report says reservation of 33 per cent of seats in village councils for women in India has led to water and better sanitation in villages, better schools and lower levels of corruption. "Women are most likely to lead social enterprises and catalyse social change," says Mazumdar-Shaw of Biocon. The glass ceiling has been shattered. But crossing over the shards of broken glass is also not proving easy.

Shweta Punj

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