The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Women on top in finance zone
Lalita Gupte

Mumbai, Oct. 7: Are there too many women here'

Pin-stripes still tend to keep boardrooms grey, but rules are changing fast in one bright corner of the corporate world. Trampled they still are under heavy boots, but the corridors of power in the finance sector are becoming livelier with the rustle of almost as many colourful anchals.

Just check out the number of women at the top of some of the biggest financial institutions in the country. The finance ministry, which proposes to make it mandatory for companies to have a certain number of women in boardrooms, would approve.

At ICICI, joint managing director Lalita Gupte is second-in-command after chairman K.V. Kamath. Out of the four executive directors who follow, two are women — Kalpana Morparia and Chanda Kochar. Of the four managing directors of group companies who follow, three are women — Shikha Sharma, managing director and CEO, ICICI Pru Life; Ramni Nirula, managing director and CEO, ICICI Securities; and Renuka Ramnath, managing director and CEO, ICICI Ventures — while Madhavi Puri Buch is senior general manager, ICICI Bank.

HSBC is headed by a woman, Naina Lal Kidwai, appropriately followed by Sonal Dave, COO, HSBC Securities and Capital Markets. Malini Thadani is head, public affairs, HSBC. At Indian Bank, the mighty Ranjana Kumar has swung the organisation’s fortune in its favour.

At RBI, one of three deputy governors is a woman, K.J. Udeshi, as are two of the seven executive directors, Usha Thorat and Shyamala Gopinath.

At IDBI Bank, Ragini Atal is the regional head, north, retail banking business, while the head of human resources, Ulhas Deshpande, has been replaced by Shalaka Gadekar.

At the finance ministry, Vinita Rai is revenue secretary.

The list goes on, but the news is most of these women — who take justifiable offence at the suggestion that women are good at finance because they are good at loving money — do not consider gender a category at all in the workplace. It’s taken so much for granted that it’s not an issue at all — a state of things many feminists describe as ideal.

“When our chairman Mr Kamath was asked once, ‘What are your views on gender equality'’, he said, ‘on WHAT'’” recounts Madhavi Puri Buch of ICICI. “It’s so much there in our organisation that it doesn’t show,” she laughs.

They are also dismissive of the idea that women are “naturally” good at finance. “I do not believe that this is a gender issue at all. Proficiency in a function has nothing to do with gender,” says Kalpana Morparia of ICICI.

It is, by all accounts, to do with work atmosphere and job profiles rather than with the genetic code. “Finance and banking offers jobs that do not require too much travel or transfers,” says Buch, “two factors that are conducive to women working”.

“But it also depends on the specific organisation,” she adds, citing ICICI as a model of gender-friendliness.

This, she says, has been possible because the organisation treats all its employees not as men and women, but as individuals having multiple dimensions. “We recognise that an employee is a son, father, husband, a fun-loving person”, and he is free to fulfil all these obligations.

For example, no employee, male or female, is frowned upon, says Buch, if he or she postpones some official duty to attend the child’s parent-teacher meeting.

ICICI even allowed a woman employee to run her job from another city because her husband had been transferred there. “We did this for her because she was a high-performing individual,” says Buch, but adds that the organisation goes out of its way that much to accommodate its employees.

“Gender neutrality in the organisation is responsible for the significant number of women in the managerial positions rather than the nature of business,” reiterates Morparia.

If ICICI has set the ball rolling, other organisations seem to be following in its footsteps, not with so much gusto perhaps, but in the same direction.

At RBI, spokesperson Alpana Kilawala says the women at the top of the organisation don’t want to speak on the subject of their gender because they don’t feel comfortable. “It’s not an issue.”

Deshpande at IDBI, possibly because he belongs to the other gender, is comfortable saying women are additionally good in the banking sector because they are good both with number-crunching and customer servicing.

But he also points out that at his bank, the work atmosphere promotes gender neutrality. “We treat women as equals in every respect. We don’t make too many concessions to them because they are women.

“But most managers are advised to be sympathetic to women employees,” he adds.

But still, many feel, this is not enough. Like Thadani from HSBC. “At one level, gender doesn’t matter,” she concedes, but adds that there should be more women, and that too much noise is being made about the presence of women in corporate circles when they are still comparatively rare.

She says that there should be more women at the base, to break through the glass ceiling.

“If there’s only one position at the top, and there are 10 people who are being looked at, and there’s no woman in that 10, then how can a woman make it to the top'” she asks.

There is the feeling that many parts of the finance sector, like most areas of the corporate world, would have to update themselves in order to be woman-friendly, especially by encouraging more women into all its services, not the so-called “womanly” ones like customer services, public affairs or human resources.

But Thadani is hopeful that there will be more women. It’s a thought shared by IDBI. “Our experience with women workers has been very good. But there are not enough of them,” says Deshpande.

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