With India’s – mostly male – MPs embroiled in a prolonged debate in Parliament over the pros and cons of a bill that would set aside a third of seats for women, the spotlight is firmly on the role of the fairer sex in Indian society.
Women are no strangers to the corridors of power in India. Well before Margaret Thatcher became the UK’s PM, the country was governed by Indira Gandhi, mother-in-law of Sonia Gandhi, the woman who now heads the ruling Congress party. But a few star turns mask the simple fact that Indian women are actually not well represented in parliament.
As the horse-trading goes on – and on – India’s other institutions and corporations have been quietly getting on with promoting women into top positions.
The Supreme Court recently announced the appointment of its fourth female justice. And more than one in 10 chief executives of Indian companies are women, according to a survey conducted by executive research firm EMA Partners (far higher than in the US).
The country’s booming financial services sector is also benefitting from the female touch where a whopping 54 per cent of chief executives are women. Highest profile among them are Chanda Kochhar, who gained the top job at ICICI Bank after 25 years at the company; Shikha Sharma of Axis Bank, Naina Lal Kidwai, chief executive of HSBC India and Kalpana Morparia of JP Morgan’s Indian operations.
It’s a curious development in a country with a less than sterling record when it comes to gender equality. Female infanticide is so rife that India has the world’s most skewed sex ratio at birth. Meanwhile, women consistently have far less access to health, education and economic participation.
How, exactly, does a country that seemingly devalues the role of women – seeing them as a burden, rather than an asset – also push so many women to the top of the pyramid to run its corporations, courts and government?
Ask a hundred people and be prepared for a hundred answers. Some say access to childcare in the form of low-cost nannies and domestic help makes it easier for women to pursue careers, even as the joint family system breaks down. Others point to family dynasties: if there are no sons, business founders will happily pass the reins to a daughter to keep the business in the family. The lack of an entrenched “boys’ club” culture is another reason cited for the high prevalence of women in top-tier corporate roles: when business deals aren’t done on the golf course or male-dominated bars, it makes it easier for women to play an active role in business.
Others say it was the change in attitudes towards educating girls two to three decades ago. “[Earlier] education was almost entirely restricted to men,” says Ambica Deri, president of the Kolkata-based women’s arm of the Indian Chamber of Commerce. “Parents became just as inclined to educate girls as well as boys. Once they had education and qualifications, more women entered business and today they are encouraged to prove themselves, that they can work just as well as men,” she says.
Shipra Chatterjee, executive director of the women’s branch of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry, points out that large-scale corporate entrepreneurship in India is still relatively new, just 40 to 50 years old, and Indian women have always been productive workers. “Many Indian women work part-time, around their family demands. But that usually goes unrecognised and unnoticed, as it’s hard to count,” she says.
Whether or not the government pushes through its affirmative action bill, one thing is certain, as the Indian economy shakes of the effects of the global financial crisis, there will be increasing demand for highly qualified and educated Indian women.