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True Grit

Prosenjit Datta     September 17, 2016

The financial sector in India boasts of some of the more high-profile women CEOs and other C-suite executives. It is also the sector where women first broke through the glass ceiling. But in 1965, when Tarjani Vakil joined IDBI as its first woman officer, she was asked helpfully by a senior male colleague to go sit next to another woman in the office - a stenographer. It took several years before her male colleagues came to accept her in the workplace. In 1993, she became the first woman to head a financial institution in India - as chairperson and managing director of EXIM Bank.

Ranjana Kumar, who joined as a probationary officer in Bank of India in 1966, became the second woman to crack the C-suite in Indian finance, and went on to head Indian Bank (which she rescued from a rough patch) and, later, NABARD.

In the 1970s and 1980s, ICICI (then still a development institution) hired a number of extremely talented women who would later go on to head different financial institutions. The ICICI alumni included Lalita Gupte, Kalpana Morparia, Shikha Sharma, Chanda Kochhar, Renuka Ramnath and many others, who went on to stamp their imprint on different financial institutions.

In 1967, just as Vakil was beginning to be accepted by male colleagues in her development institution, Lila Poonawalla became the first woman engineering trainee at the shop floor of Ruston & Hornsby. Poonawalla rose to become managing director of Alfa Laval, thus becoming the first woman to head a multinational engineering company in India. But for a long time afterwards, engineering remained a very male- dominated profession. Sudha Murthy, who became the first woman engineer to join the Tata Engineering and Locomotive Company Ltd (Telco, which has now become Tata Motors) in 1974, had a tough time getting selected despite being a topper from her stream in Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore. It was acceptable to join an academic institution - an IIT or IISc - as a lecturer after passing out of engineering, but not on the shop floor, she was told.

The pioneers had a tough time - in IT, in FMCG and, in fact, in every field. But they paved the way for many of the women who are in the list of the most powerful women in business in India currently. Associate Editor Sarika Malhotra's story captures the tremendous odds that the pioneers battled and also the length of the journey that women have travelled in the Indian workplace. It is still not easy being a woman on the fast track in any profession, but it is much easier than it was four decades ago.

Business Today started the most powerful women survey in 2003 as an annual feature, and since then, it has become one of our most popular issues. Our jury members this year - S. Ramadorai, Chairman of the National Skill Development Corporation; Zia Mody, Managing Partner, AZB & Partners; Vishwavir Ahuja, MD & CEO, RBL Bank; noted business historian Gita Piramal; Richard Rekhy, CEO of KPMG India; and ace advertising executive Ambika Srivastava - chose 30 truly remarkable women for our issue this year. Three of the winners are joining the Hall of Fame, having won six times earlier already. Read about the remarkable stories of India's foremost woman leaders in business.

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