By: R.K. Sinha
On March 8, the auspicious occasion of International Women’s Day, several opinions and perspectives came to light about the numerous successful accomplishments of women across the globe. It was indeed refreshing news to come across. But one aspect that seemed to have not been mentioned was that now women are triumphantly climbing the corporate ladders and snagging peak positions.
The appointment of Nishi Vasudeva as the Chairman and Managing director of state-owned Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited (HPCL), and Alka Mittal as Interim Chairman and Managing Director of the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) indicates that women are now given favourable opportunities to lead from the top in the prestigious public sector undertakings called Navratnas.
That was the first time a woman was made the head of the country’s largest oil and gas producer. It was no ordinary instance. Alka Mittal holding a postgraduate degree in economics and a doctoral degree in commerce became the first woman to be on the ONGC Board on November 27, 2018. However, it also has to be accepted that women professionals will have to work hard and struggle to take their rightful part in the corporate world.
According to recent studies, only 18 percent of the Board of companies listed on the Bombay Stock Exchange consist of female participants. It will take some time before this rises to 45-50 percent. Until a few years ago, even this estimate would have been considered wishful thinking. Today, women are constantly making strides in the corporate world. Whether it be a small business or a large multinational, one can find many women professionals and entrepreneurs.
There is an abundance of notable examples in our society. For instance, Madhavi Puri Buch has taken over as the head of the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI). Buch is the first female to become the Chairperson of SEBI. She is also the first non-bureaucrat to hold this esteemed position in the past few years. The government has appointed her as the SEBI chief for a period of three years.
One cannot deny that there wasn’t much space or opportunity for women in corporate India until recently. They weren’t considered fit enough for trivial posts such as typist-clerk or private secretary. The Tata conglomerate has been a true trailblazer in the corporate world of India. It has also played a significant role in the process of nation-building. Despite this, even during the era of the renowned JRD Tata, the most inspirational man of this group, no female professional was given the command of any subsidiary company. Similarly, hardly any woman got a place on the Board of any other company.
In the era of JRD Tata, Ajit Kerkar (Taj Hotel), F.C. Sehgal (TCS), eminent jurist Nani Palkiwala (ACC Cement), and Russi Modi (Tata Steel) were the key faces of the Tata group. The reasoning behind this example is to hint at the fact that women in the Tata group did not get their lawful rights, let alone the rest. The winds of economic liberalization that started sweeping across the country post-1991 started transforming the face of the corporate world.
Subsequently, women became entrepreneurs and were appointed to high-ranking positions in top-tier companies. All this was possible because there was an influx of a tsunami of opportunities. Here it would be appropriate to mention Falguni Nair, the Founder of the renowned beauty start-up, Nykaa. She has recently achieved the ground-breaking distinction of India’s richest self-made female billionaire. A while ago, Nykaa witnessed a remarkable listing, and their IPO was warmly welcomed by the stock market. Currently, Nair controls half the ownership of her company, and her net worth stands at around $6.5 billion following the rise in the price of the firm’s shares by up to 89 percent. It is the first woman-led company in India to enter the stock exchange.
Meanwhile, there is an alternate view that even though we have many women occupying important positions in the corporate world, disparities persist in terms of female participation in the company boardrooms. However, Arundhati Bhattacharya in the State Bank of India, Shikha Sharma in Axis Bank, and Chanda Kochhar in ICICI Bank being the managing directors can be considered a milestone. That reiterates a solid message regarding the opportunities given to women at the best banks. But it is imperative to mention that Chanda Kochhar, former Managing Director, and CEO of ICICI Bank, also faces grave allegations of abuse of her position and was behind bars for the crime of money laundering. Chanda Kochhar is accused of giving loans by bypassing the rules too. At present, she is out on bail.
Thinking in retrospect, one will understand that the doors for women have remained shut when it came to the Company Boardrooms. That was not only unfair but also gave a clear indication of the rampant patriarchy that existed in the corporate world. In a nation that worships women as goddesses, it is indeed shameful to deny women equal opportunities in the workspace. The decisions regarding promotions, advancements, and hires should be based solely on merit and capabilities.
There was a time when the promoters of our companies placed their wives, daughters, daughters-in-law as mere showpieces in the boardroom and believed that they had sparked a revolution. By doing the bare minimum, they felt that they had given women the lawful rights that they should have gotten in the first place. Women contribute towards half of the world’s population. The onus of ensuring that they get the opportunities they are entitled to falls on the entire society. We can ensure equality in the workspace by improving their involvement in boardrooms, where they have ample decision-making power necessary to bring about changes. (The writer is a senior editor, columnist, and former MP)