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'Why are there are so few women on Corporate India's boards'

'Why are there are so few women on Corporate India's boards'

Why are there so few women on Corporate India's boards? Companies complain they cannot find enough of them. This is partly true. But the whole truth should also include the way the nominations committee process works in most boards.

The case for diversity is proven. A group comprising people with different mind wiring and experiences can deliver intellectually superior and innovative outcomes on any issue compared to a group which is homogeneous.

This argument applies to gender diversity on corporate boards . In addition, effective corporate boards are about 'balance'. They must be fierce watchdogs yet supportive mentors of the management; they must ask tough, detailed questions on business and management performance - even while respecting the management's freedom to perform. They need to ensure the balance of long- and short-term orientation, and the good of all stakeholders - investors, employees, business partners and society at large, and ensure the right company values and talent pool.

Rama Bijapurkar
Rama Bijapurkar
This not only makes the case for balancing intellectual, life and career experiences and skills on boards, but also for balancing masculine and feminine traits. Researcher Sandra Bem, a Stanford University psychologist, developed the concept of 'androgynous' behaviour. "Androgynous people can be aggressive or yielding, forceful or gentle, sensitive or assertive as the particular situation demands," she says. Given a board's job description, androgynous individuals would make great board members. But we know that while masculine and feminine traits are present in all human beings, the process of socialisation causes one set of traits to dull. So perhaps, the best way to create androgynous boards is by having a good mix of men and women on them.

But why are there are so few women on Corporate India's boards, and how do we change that? Companies complain that they cannot find enough of them. This is partly true. But the whole truth also includes the way the nominations committee process works in most boards. All too often the shortlisting is done by asking 'Is there anyone we know who will be good for this board'. Given the skewed ratio of men and women in visible senior positions, the default option usually is a man.

There are several qualified women out there, and the way to find them is for nomination committees to spend some money and advertise, or ask a headhunter to systematically create a database from which to choose. If nominations committees were to follow more formal search processes and adopt affirmative action, there will be a quantum jump in the number of women on Indian boards, without lowering entry standards in any way.

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Should we women worry about whether a company including just one woman on the board is 'tokenism'? Absolutely not. Even though being the only one of a kind is daunting, we need to instead ask ourselves once on the board: do we show independent thought, and spine, or do we try desperately to belong to the male club that recruited us as tokens thereby frittering away the opportunity to demonstrate the effects of genuine diversity? Women board members should not buy the conventional wisdom of audit committees being the most powerful place to be. That is just where the money gets counted. On the other hand, there is enormous, long-lasting value to be added to the company and society by being on the remuneration committee and implementing reward systems that look beyond financials and incentivise 'value right' business-strengthening behaviour. Nomination committees are also crucial because that is where who comes on the board and how is decided. That is where the board perpetuates itself. That is the place from which gender diversity on boards can be driven and better boards built.

The writer is an independent director on several boards and an expert on consumer behaviour

Published on: Aug 27, 2011, 4:05 PM IST
Posted by: Navneeta N, Aug 27, 2011, 4:05 PM IST