The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Men silent on women on board
- Don’t blame males alone, say those that have made it

Score: Reliance 0. HLL 0. Wipro 0. Raymonds 0. Tisco 0.

BPCL 0. Dr Reddy’s Labs 0. BSES 0. Tata Motors 0. Mahindra & Mahindra 0.

Bajaj Auto 0. Gujarat Ambuja Cements 0. ACC 0.

Infosys 1. Arvind Mills 1.

There are many vacancies at the top of the corporate world — all for women. For the scores above show how many women directors the companies have — or, don’t have — in their boardrooms.

It’s a trifle embarrassing, considering the many leaps women are supposed to have taken of late and the recent proposal from the finance ministry to introduce mandatory presence of a certain number of women in boardrooms. Maybe that’s the reason not many are willing to talk.

Harsh Goenka of RPG regrets his inability to participate in the debate. The Reliance spokesperson says no one in the company will be interested to talk. The Hindustan Lever spokesperson says no one who can speak on the matter can be found despite a three weeks’ search. The Infosys spokesperson — a lady — said the company would take very long to come up with its explanation.

Only Rahul Bajaj, after a conference on taking India ahead, decided to give the matter some thought. “It’s a good idea to bring more women into the boardroom,” he said. “We should probably start with one woman at a time, then see how things work out.”

“Currently, most boards are all-male bastions,” says Kiran Mazumdar, the woman who started Biocon, the biotech firm in Bangalore, and has been accused of being a visionary.

“It is a delicate matter,” says Tarjani Vakil, former chairperson of Exim Bank who is now an independent director on the boards of a number of companies, on the silence surrounding the absence of women.

But the men need not be so sullen, for the women don’t blame them alone.

Mazumdar says it is lack of confidence that still holds women back. And “social barriers”, which may not necessarily be men who are at the most guilty of condescension.

Vakil, who was judged one of 50 most powerful women in the world in 1996, points to the more formidable hurdles, those in her mind, born out of the “social barriers” that Mazumdar speaks of.

“A director’s responsibilities are onerous. And we must remember women have entered late into the corporate world. They will certainly take some time to take on those responsibilities,” says Vakil.

“It has also to do with qualification. Till this date there’s only a very small pool of qualified women with technological or financial or marketing knowledge to be accepted into the board,” she says.

Add to that the nasty stereotypes of women that persist. The men who rule the roost in many family-owned businesses, which include some of the biggest companies, still don’t consider women smart enough to deal with serious business. Especially those that require muscle — manufacturing, engineering, etc.

Sometimes women have bad feelings about them, too. “Women have been late entrants, and maybe they instinctively avoid industries like manufacturing,” says Kaushik Roy, marketing head of Reliance Infocomm.

Plus there is the concern about the Wives and Daughters Club — women directors who are there only because of their surname. The women who have made it on their own react with righteous indignation on the issue.

“We need to ensure that such induction is not cosmetic. Wives and daughters may be inducted only if they add value to the business and not merely to satisfy the gender requirement,” says Mazumdar.

Some of the Wives and Daughters have done their bit, though. Like Sulajja Firodia Motwani of Kinetic who keeps adding her spin to her two-wheelers, Shauna Chauhan of Parle, who has already made a splash in the market by introducing the fruit drink -Joi, Mallika Srinivasan of tractor company Tafe, and Meenakshi Saraogi of Balarampur Chini, who stood her ground in the very macho world of sugar mills in Uttar Pradesh.

Then there is Anu Aga of Thermax. “I am a director because of my equity. However, if competence was the sole criteria, I am not so sure that I would have been selected,” says the outgoing chairperson of Thermax, the boiler manufacturer, who has put another woman, her daughter, on probation as her successor.

She came on board in the early 1980s when Thermax was a private limited company run by her husband. “In 1996, after the sudden death of my husband, the board selected me as the executive chairperson,” she says.

But she is not sure that boards have to have women. “While companies can be persuaded to have women on their boards, I think board membership cannot be dictated,” she says.

But the others of her sex are quite determined about it. “I believe in the induction of women on to boards as gender is an issue which needs to be addressed by all companies with the increasing number of women in the workplace,” says Mazumdar. It will be good for the future, she says, forwarding her own company’s example.

“I believe that being a woman CEO has set the tone of our company culture where there is the highest of gender equality and a mutual respect for competence. Thirty per cent of our employees are women. Five of our 15 departmental heads are women,” says Mazumdar.

But she says that though the situation is not perfect, there is no need to despair. She even believes that the glass ceiling is not really there — it’s in the women’s minds.

The others talk about another very important factor: time. Since women have entered late, they should be given some time to prove themselves, they say.

“Give them some time,” says Dorab Sopariwala, market research consultant. “Women have been late entrants. They will be there. But why are you only talking of women' How many scheduled caste members are there on the boards' How many Muslims'” he asks.

“Give them some time. In a decade things will look different,” says Vakil. The entry of women into the board will be a natural process then.

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