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The First Ladies' Club

By Sarika Malhotra     November 21, 2016

Why don't you sit next to the lady? you will have company," a male senior helpfully suggested to a young Tarjani Vakil. The lady Vakil was told to sit next to was a stenographer at the newly constituted IDBI, then a wholly owned subsidiary of Reserve Bank of India (RBI), where Vakil had joined as an 'officer' from the Maharashtra State Finance Commission. Since the order came from a senior - deputy manager - Vakil obliged. "Such was the level of hierarchy at RBI, and the mindset of men," she says. "Not just that, I could sense a discomfort in the lady, too. All she said was, yes ma'am and no ma'am."

A postgraduate in History from Bombay University, Vakil, 22, had started picking up the nuances of finance after joining the Commission (rechristened Bombay State Finance Commission) in 1958 as clerical staff at a monthly salary of Rs 75. "My father's dream was to see my signature on the Indian currency note," reminiscences Vakil on a long phone call from Mumbai. With experience in small-scale industrial lending, a pre-requisite that the newly formed bank was seeking, Vakil was the only woman 'officer' of the first 40 recruits IDBI had in 1965. While women as clerical staff or 'stenos' were common, a woman officer was rare. "In the initial years, we all were made to sit in a big hall, and whenever I looked up, I found someone staring at me," she says. Slowly the glares faded, but the discomfort in her immediate seniors and colleagues was apparent as she was rising up the ranks. "After all, who wanted a woman boss?"

She says things changed when "a very important assignment" was given to her in the early 1970s by RBI's then deputy governor Ardhendu Bakshi. The assignment entailed unloading some shares without affecting the market. She was provided 'facilities' - a desk with a phone connection - to deliver the important assignment. "I am giving this to you because I have faith in your integrity, you understand Gujarati, and I know you will be able to do it," Bakshi had said. Gujarati was the language of brokers, and Bakshi believed nobody would approach a woman for undue favours. The successful completion of the assignment not only created a buzz in the market, but also earned Vakil a reputation.

The reputation helped her become the first woman to head a financial institution in India as Chairperson and Managing Director of EXIM Bank in 1993. She was ranked the highest woman official in banking in Asia, and named in the 50 world-class women executives in a 1996 survey conducted by KPMG Peat Marwick, US. Richard Rekhy, CEO of KPMG in India, says: "Post the nationalisation of banks in 1969, it took almost three decades for a woman to ascend to the top spot of a large bank. Vakil's climb was momentous, and marks the beginning of the change that I regard no less than a revolution."

Tarjani Vakil, Former Chairperson and MD, EXIM Bank (Photo: Rachit Goswami)
{quote}When Vakil retired in 1996, she was asked how many years before the next Tarjani: "It's just a matter of time? of five-six more years," she had said. By then, Vakil was seeing women as officers and general managers, and not just backend staff. And she was proven right when Ranjana Kumar, a 1966 direct recruit probationary officer in Bank of India, took over as the Chairman and Managing Director of Indian Bank in mid-2000, steered it through a rough patch, and later headed the NABARD.

Banking On

Janaki Krishnan, author of Breaking Barriers, points out that studies have shown "in demographics where income levels are low, employment of women is higher. When income levels improve, their employment levels fall as there is no necessity for them to work. Therefore, earlier women largely played supporting roles - secretaries, assistants, typists, clerks". But when education levels improve, their participation in the workforce rises. This helped women gain entry into non-clerical roles, particularly in banks, tax and customs through common entrance exams, she says.

A revolution was evident in public sector banks as more women came through the probationary officers' recruitment. Eventually, Vijayalakshmi R. Iyer (CMD of Bank of India), Archana Bhargava (CMD of United Bank of India), Shubhalakshmi Panse (CMD of Allahabad Bank), and Usha Ananthasubramanian (CEO and MD, Punjab National Bank) became beacons of the sector. The 2013 appointment of Arundhati Bhattacharya, a 1977 probationary officer, as the Chairman of SBI, India's oldest and largest bank, cemented the rise of women in banking PSUs.

While the PSUs were a play of seniority and merit, the private sector was scripting a new story with merit-only policies. The 1970s witnessed the influx of women in entry-level management roles such as Lalita D. Gupte (1971), Kalpana Morparia (1975) and Renu Sud Karnad (1978) in the financial arena. While Karnad joined HDFC Ltd, India's first mortgage company, Gupte and Morparia joined the Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation of India (ICICI), which provided medium- and long-term project financing to businesses.

The 1980s laid the path for what women would achieve in financial services. Early 1980s saw the entry of the first Indian woman graduate from the Harvard Business School - Naina Lal Kidwai - guiding the functioning of a foreign bank in India in 1982 at ANZ Grindlays. Chitra Ramkrishna, who joined IDBI in 1985, was handpicked in the early 1990s in the core team to establish a financial institution to reform India's capital markets - the National Stock Exchange - and is now its chief. IIM-A graduate Roopa Kudva joined IDBI in 1986, and in 2007 became the MD & CEO of CRISIL. During her leadership, its market capitalisation grew from Rs 2,900 crore to Rs 14,000 crore, and revenues tripled.

ICICI recruited Shikha Sharma in 1980, Chanda Kochhar (1984), Renuka Ramnath (1986), and Zarin Daruwala, Vedika Bhandarkar, Madhabi Puri Buch and Shilpa Kumar in 1989, all of who went on to handle some of the biggest investment portfolios post the first phase of banking reforms triggered by the Narsimhan Committee in 1991. The licensing of new private banks in the next two decades proved that women and financial services really gelled well. Kochhar, who became MD & CEO of ICICI Bank in 2009 (and continues to be so), says that the biggest draw of ICICI was its level playing work environment. "It provided an enabling environment that did not discriminate on the basis of gender," she says. "And women felt comforted that only merit will be in consideration."

Renuka Ramnath, Founder MD, Multiples Alternate Asset Management, says the women who joined ICICI in the 1980s were all ambitious. "ICICI groomed the talent, and provided a safe and respectful environment where we all blossomed. Interestingly, the men left for greener pastures post 1995, while the women grew with the organisation. It was a unique setting."

KPMG's Rekhy says financial services allowed women to work in a profession unencumbered by masculine stereotypes: "It is also a sector that intentionally started to build diversity before other sectors. Structure in thought, analytical acumen, sound instinct and intellectual ability are skills that might make their way into requisites in the industry. And women are excellent at it."

The IT Factor

Ramnath points out that in the mid-1970s, when women started pursuing professional education - engineering, accountancy, business administration - outlooks changed and it progressively started to change things on the ground. "Later, liberalisation threw open a host of new opportunities. As new sectors and segments were growing, people were travelling more and interacting with the world at global forums. We were more amiable to change and the need for quality talent was growing. This is when mindsets started to change and one thing led to another."

In 1970, barely 910 women enrolled in engineering colleges, which increased to 26,470 in 1995. The enrolments further shot up to 22 per cent of the total in 2001 from 16 per cent in 1995, even as the IITs remained male-dominated. In 2005, at IIT Bombay, women comprised 8 per cent of graduates at the Bachelors level, and 9 per cent at the Masters. Management institutes, too, started to witness trickling in of women. Even as the IIMs saw just a handful of women in the initial years - market strategy consultant Rama Bijapurkar recalls that her IIM-A batch of 1977 had only eight women - the management departments of universities such as FMS, Delhi, Jamnalal Bajaj and private business schools such as XLRI and Narsee Monjee started churning out women management graduates.

Lila Poonawalla, Former MD, Alfa Laval
{quote}And even this small presence was commendable. "Gendering in India is so deep," says Vasanthi Srinivasan, Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Human Resources at IIM Bangalore. "Even today, I meet smart young girls and ask them why they did not study science. Many of them say that their brothers had to do engineering, so the family decided to send her to the local college." A closer look at the data shows what's happening: Women enrolment in 2010/11, as per UGC, was 41.21 per cent in Arts; 19.14 per cent in Science, and 16.12 per cent in Commerce/Management. Krishnan says participation of women in the workforce actually fell between 1987 and 2009. Reason: high economic growth in India and higher income levels. "So, the women who entered the workforce were only those who were serious about their careers."

Post liberalisation, while banking was scripting success stories, information technology was not far behind. The sheer number of women in the sector since 2000 became a testimony of how it developed into a 'women-friendly' sector. S. Ramadorai, former CEO of TCS who now chairs the National Skill Development Corporation, talks of a Nasscom-PwC survey of March 2016, according to which women constitute 34 per cent of the IT-BPM workforce (over 1.3 million women employees) - an increase of around 1.8 times since FY2009. Nearly 10 per cent of these women are in senior management roles (approximately 1 per cent in the C-suite). Further, around 28 per cent of the women employees in the sector are primary breadwinners, thereby indicating the changing trend of women's employment and inclusion in the sector. Today, the sheer number of women in IT says it all. IBM (Vanitha Narayanan), Hewlett Packard Enterprise (Neelam Dhawan) and Accenture (Rekha Menon) in India are all headed by women; while Capgemini (Aruna Jayanthi) and Intel (Kumud Srinivasan and Debjani Ghosh) have recently seen Indian women graduating to bigger global roles.

"Our industry functions with the intent of being an equal opportunity employer. We make an effort to fine-tune and amend policies pertaining to the health and safety of women. This is perhaps one of the most important reasons that led to more women joining and remaining with IT," says Ramadorai. For him, the biggest landmark was when TCS became the first employer to have 100,000 women employees.

Aruna Jayanthi, who was recently elevated to a global role at Capgemini as CEO, Business Services, says the services sector had some inherent factors that made it more viable for women. "Its favourable attitude towards implementation of latest technology, which allows for more time-flexibility (ability to check mails on the go) and work-life balance (video calls instead of in-person meetings) has only helped."

Kalpana Morparia, CEO, JP Morgan India (Photo: Nishikant Gamre)
{quote}The IT sector found its first woman head in 2005 with Neelam Dhawan becoming the Managing Director of Microsoft India. Dhawan's rise was unconventional in many ways. She was not trained in software, but had an MBA with specialisation in marketing. When she joined HCL in 1982 as a management trainee, she was the only woman in hard-core sales. "Sales or quota-carrying roles were considered very high-pressure jobs, and that's why many women did not opt for it. And in those days, the conversation started with, what does a computer do? That was the stage of IT maturity. Since then, I never felt overwhelmed by carrying a quota, as it was just a goal to be achieved."

Dhawan says owing to her specialisation in marketing and working in sales, she was used to being in a minority. "In one of the roles I took on, on day one, my boss told me that out of the three GMs who have to report to you? one has quit saying 'I can't tell my wife that I am reporting to a woman'. The second said 'since she is from HCL and I from Wipro, I think I don't want to report to her'. So my boss said, 'I am ok to let them go, because we have taken a decision to hire you for this job'."

Vinita Bali, Strategy Advisor & Independent Director and former MD of Britannia Industries, says women role models in the corporate world were just a handful when she started working in the late 1970s: Camillia Panjabi in marketing, Lila Poonawalla in engineering, Lalita Gupte in banking and Roda Mehta in advertising. "There were very few women in marketing when I started working," Bali recalls. "In 1980, when I joined Cadbury India, I was the first ever woman manager in the company! In all my roles in marketing and general management across three companies and five continents, where I have lived and worked, Nigeria and South Africa were the two countries that had a very good representation of women in marketing." The pipeline, though, dried up in general management. Bali recalls that when she became division president of Coca-Cola in Latin America in 1999, she was only the third woman in the history of the company in a general management role. In 2006, when she took charge of Britannia, she was the first woman MD of a listed food company in India.

Dhawan says it's an irony that, in IT or otherwise, more women are not opting for sales and marketing roles. She cites the example of HPE: In a workforce of 33 per cent women, sales and marketing would be just around 10 per cent. Majority still are in the services, software development, application develop-ment and back office support. "It is great to have so many women on the development side, but in sales and marketing the ratios are much less." Obviously, something is still amiss.

Missing Links

Other sectors, however, could not keep pace with BFSI and IT. Manufacturing remains a stark case. Even as Sudha Murthy's legendary fight against 'men only' bias led her to become the first female engineer to be hired at India's largest auto manufacturer Tata Engineering and Locomotive Company in 1974, it remained a long haul for other women to get into manufacturing. The reasons cited to Murthy (then Kulkarni) during her interview, remained valid for the longest time: "This is not a co-ed college; this is a factory. When it comes to academics, you are a first ranker throughout. We appreciate that, but people like you should work in research laboratories." Krishnan cites the example of Priti Shankar. "She was the first woman electrical graduate from IIT Delhi and that was in 1968! After completing her PhD, she got a job at the Indian Institute of Science." Qualified women, as researchers and professors, were acceptable, but not as engineers in factories and shop floors.

Chanda Kochhar, MD & CEO, ICICI Bank (Photo: Rachit Goswami)
{quote}No wonder, then, manufacturing has not seen as many women role models, such as a rare Lila Poonawalla who became the first woman Managing Director of an engineering MNC in India, when she headed Alfa Laval from 1987 to 1996. The first woman engineering graduate from College of Engineering, Pune, she started her career as a trainee engineer on the shop floor of Ruston & Hornsby in 1967. Poonawalla says there were very few female engineers in the late 1960s and 70s, let alone mechanical engineers. In the 1980s, even as their numbers started growing, organisations and parents did not prefer women to work on the shop floors. "With growing computerisation, both families and organisations were keen that women engineers should get into design aspects rather than work on shop floors," she says, pointing out that organisations believed women could bring more value in design, and parents wanted their daughters to pursue software development careers as opportunities increased in the 1990s.

The Annual Survey of Industries conducted by Central Statistics Office says women had 1.5 million jobs in organised factories out of the total 6.9 million jobs in 2013/14. KPMG's Rekhy says women are neither made aware of, nor given opportunities that would catapult them to the upper echelons. "Often, women with technical competencies in line functions, such as manufacturing, R&D and operations, end up in staff functions. Experience in line or operational functions, during one's mid-career are often an unwritten prerequisite to getting into the C-suite." A rare case was of Nishi Vasudeva, an IIM Calcutta graduate who went on to head Hindustan Petroleum Corporation from 2014 to 2016, after joining the company in 1979.

Poonawalla says that as automation is growing, we are witnessing assembly lines exclusively being run by women in some units. Even as Kirloskar's all-women operated and managed manufacturing plant at Coimbatore is an exception, Tata Cummins's Phaltan plant, GE's Pune facility and Bajaj Auto's Chakan are examples of having majority women on the shop floor. Ramadorai says as the manufacturing industry moves forward contributing to 25 per cent of GDP, women must have an equal share in employment.

Bijapurkar agrees. "While there is as much focus on women in banking, the fact is that bank jobs make for just 6 per cent of the organised job market. How about other sectors?" Zia Mody, Managing Partner of AZB & Partners and one of India's leading corporate lawyers, says while the biggest change happened in the BSFI space, legal has a long way to go still. "There are very few women Councils in India. It continues to be a man's world. Councils require rigorous, undivided attention, and sacrifices in a normal course. Since women do not get the support structure, they tend to fall through." Data by Legally India shows that only 2.8 per cent members in bar councils are women, and eight out of 12 bar councils do not have a single female member. In the non-litigation space, Mody feels that women are making some progress, but in the smaller cities things have not changed at all.

Business historian Gita Piramal, who was one of two female reporters in Financial Times, Asia bureau in 1988 along with Christina Lamb, says that change in other sectors has been slow. "Nobody is doing what the Tatas are doing? to look within the group, identify and mentor women to rise within the organisation?" The initiative will place 300 women under a cross-company mentoring programme, enabling female executives to be mentored by 18 CXOs and 35 CEOs from 45 group firms.

Renuka Ramnath, Founder MD, Multiples Alternate Asset Management (Photo: Nishikant Gamre)
{quote}"As more women join an industry, others follow suit," says ICICI Bank's Kochhar. "Banking was one of the few industries where women who joined as management trainees grew to be CEOs. Once more women start entering other sectors - manufacturing, FMCG - more will follow suit. It's just about creating a gender neutral environment. ICICI is an example of what can be achieved and replicated."

Making Business Sense

What was playing out in corporate India was a reflection of India's overall societal set-up from the pre Independence era. Raman Mahadevan, an economic and business historian, says Indian business was largely dominated by members of the vaishya or merchant castes. "Being essentially conservative social groups, the women from these communities were by design excluded from the nitty-gritty of the world of commerce and business," says Mahadevan. "Even the Parsis, who were otherwise considered relatively more westernised, were no exception. The only Parsi woman and probably the first Indian woman in Imperial India to be co-opted as a director of a company was Navajbai Tata, wife of Sir Ratan Tata, the younger son of Tata Group founder Jamsetji Tata. She joined the Board in 1918, following the death of her husband and remained in that position for several decades."

Business historian Dwijendra Tripathi says that like most professions, business traditionally has been male dominated. He cites the example of Sumati Morarji, the first woman head of a prominent business. "Morarji stepped into the shoes of her husband Narottam after his death around 1950, as her son Shantakumar was not yet ready to take over the leadership at Scindia Steam Navigation Company. It was around the same time, Lilavati Lalbhai, Kasturbhai's sister, was placed at the head of Raipur Mills, one of the seven cotton textile units that the family controlled. But it was more of a technical arrangement; the real power remained in the hands of Kasturbhai, the head of the group and the family." A notable exception was Simone Tata who took over as MD of Lakme - a 100 per cent subsidiary of Tata Oil Mills - in 1964 and ran it independently.

The Amendment of the Hindu Succession Act of 1956, with the right of women to an equal share of the family property, was a catalyst for change. "This, along with dissolution of joint families, and its substitution by the growing nuclearisation of families, created the necessary space for women to be involved in the family business," says Mahadevan.

Aruna Jayanthi, CEO, Business Services, Capgemini (Photo: Rachit Goswami)
{quote}Of course, with daughter-only heirs, the choice was easy. Mallika Srinivasan, daughter of industrialist A. Sivasailam, became CEO and Chairman of Tractors And Farm Equipment (TAFE) in 2011, after growing through the ranks. Shobhana Bhartia, daughter of industrialist K.K. Birla, was an unprecedented example in the Birla clan when she joined the board of Hindustan Times in mid-1980s. The Reddy sisters taking charge of Apollo Hospitals was a given. However, families such as Godrej and Guptas (Lupin) in recent times have become benchmarks in giving merit-based roles to their daughters and sons.

A unique case is that of Anu Aga, who took over the leadership of Pune-based Thermax on the premature death of her husband, Rohinton. Aga served as the power major Thermax's chairperson from 1996 to 2004, and she steered the company through many a tide - when she took over, Thermax's share price had plunged from Rs 400 to Rs 36.

However, Tripathi feels that no achievement comes close to that of Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, who at barely 25 launched Biocon in 1978, which has developed into the biggest biotech company in India. "But her example has not been replicated," he says. "Although there was nearly 100 per cent growth in women entrepreneurship during the decade beginning 1991, according to the FICCI women cell, none has made any impact on the Indian business scene, with the exception of Shahnaz Hussain's herbal empire."

Mazumdar-Shaw says she was driven by a sense of challenge to break away from the mould. She has recently invested in India's first women's venture capital fund, SAHA, and is also mentoring women entrepreneurs. "Scaling is not a gender specific issue, though for women, balancing family and enterprise can be a challenge if they do not have an enabling support system. Scaling is all about strategising, hanging on and not going for an early exit," she says. "I started Biocon with Rs 10,000. If I would have thought of exiting when its valuation reached Rs 10 crore, the company would not have scaled." She says that things are changing for women. "The fact that Naina Lal Kidwai headed FICCI and now Shobana Kamineni is President Designate of CII says it all. These industry bodies were male dominated for the longest time. For them to have women heads is path breaking."

So Far, So Good?

While there is no doubt that over the past two decades, women have become more visible in the workplace, IIM-B's Srinivasan says that the findings in the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report 2015 are not very heartening. "Out of 145 countries, India ranks 139th when it comes to Economic Participation and Opportunity pillar. While data on the number of women in skilled and leadership positions is not available, India was ranked 136th in terms of labour force participation. So, we have a long way to go in terms of presence of women in more powerful roles in the corporate sector."

Krishnan questions how many women are in board positions in Indian companies, despite the Sebi mandate of 2014 to have at least one woman on every board. Tripathi says even as prominent business families are inducting their lady members into boards, these are nothing more than cosmetic changes. But Chitra Ramkrishna, MD & CEO of National Stock Exchange, disagrees: "Policies such as these may initially look like tokenism, but they at least start a discussion point. Companies start thinking about the issue, discussions happen on how to address the gaps, and slowly it creates a catalyst impact."

Shachi Irde, Executive Director, Catalyst India says while we do see a number of women making it to senior positions, women constitute only 14 per cent of executive officers and only 7.7 per cent of board seats, while in the US women hold 19.9 per cent of S&P 500 board seats. "As per our analysis, nearly 50 per cent Indian women drop out of corporate employment between junior and mid-levels, compared to 29 per cent across Asia. Also, women at executive levels leave at a higher rate."

Adds Capgemini's Jayanthi: "Most women quit their jobs primarily due to inability to balance their personal and professional life and choosing the former as their priority. It is when the question becomes of selecting one of these (personal or professional) lives that we lose the plot. The focus should be on creating an environment where both can co-exist."

Bali highlights the fact that the leading management institutes only attract 20-25 per cent women, creating a supply-side constraint at the entry level itself. "Women are totally absent at the CXO level from some of our largest and most respected conglomerates," she points out. "Independent directors on the boards of such companies must also consider it their responsibility to drive that change in a systemic manner, based on merit and not gender alone."

Beyond the life-stage years' challenges, women tend to face some inherent biases that can be very subtle, but impact career growth. Ramadorai says that in organisations, biases exist at every level of employee - while preparing a job description, hiring, promotions, opportunity for key job assignments, performance appraisals, etc. He cites a simple example of how men tend to inflate their ratings during self-evaluation. On the other hand, women may be hesitant to self-promote.

Kalpana Morparia, CEO of JP Morgan Chase India, points out that women face a peculiar situation: "Good leaders are expected to be strong, confident and assertive. Yet, when women are strong, confident and assertive, they're often perceived as uncaring, self-promoting and aggressive. When they act in more collaborative ways, they're stereotyped as ones who do not possess 'good' leadership skills. A a classic case of double bind."

Dhawan says, "The issue is not if a woman is cut out for a job or not. The issue is, will the woman fit into the old boys' club? Everyone is comfortable working with someone they know? there isn't an old girls' club yet!"

Nurturing and retaining women during life-stage years and increasing diversity at the senior levels are two challenges that need to be addressed on priority. "The defining moment for India Inc. will be when diversity moves from a nice-to-have human resources project to a basic requirement for talent scouting and leadership," says Morparia.

Even as India has a long way to go to be truly gender inclusive, Vakil says a lot of good things are happening now. "Women are travelling, they are getting training? so many of them are leading organisations? it's no more a man's world." She has a regret, though: she could not fulfil her father's dream of having her signature on the Indian currency. But she believes it's just a matter of time, "of five-six years, maybe, a woman will get there".


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