In India, women bankers have broken glass ceiling

Last Updated: Mon, Mar 07, 2011 06:30 hrs

New Delhi: As the world celebrates Women's Day on Tuesday, a striking facet in the otherwise male-dominated corporate world in India has been the representation of women in the top echelons of banking and financial services.

Consider this: The country's second largest commercial lending institution, ICICI Bank, is headed by a woman, Chanda Kochhar; so is the case with the third largest in the private sector, Axis Bank, which has Shikha Sharma on the top seat.

One of the largest foreign banks in the country, HSBC, and the Indian arm of the global financial powerhouse JPMorgan Chase are also headed by women, with Naina Lal Kidwai and Kalpana Morparia respectively overseeing their operations.

Even the Reserve Bank of India, until recently, had two women among four of its deputy governors in Usha Thorat, who has retired, and Shyamala Gopinath, who is still serving the apex industry institution.

'Women have this thing with numbers, finance and money. The banking industry gave them equal opportunities and they have excelled,' Finance Secretary Sushma Nath, who is herself the first woman to occupy the top post in North Block, said.

In fact, a look at the composition of the top brass of 11 top listed banks on the Indian stock markets reveals that nine of them have at least one woman on their boards and two of them have women serving as chief executives.

This is backed by a recent study of 240 top Indian companies by EMA Partners, the global executive-search firm, which says more than a half of India's women chief executives are accounted for by the banking and financial services industry.

'The banking and financial services industry has seen the presence of more women on top than any other industry. In fact, women chief executives among the private sector and foreign banks would almost outnumber men in this sector,' the study said.

According to Alok Khare, president of the All India Bank Officers Association, out of about one million bank employees in the country, 15-17 percent are women. 'But in metro centres and cities, 27-30 percent are women,' Khare said.

What are the reasons for this pleasant exception to the male bastion that the corporate world is?

'Some of the operational challenges in terms of gender aren't there in our banking and financial services industry,' said Aruna Sundararajan, who was till recently the chief executive for digital inclusion at Infrastructure Leasing and Financial Services Ltd.

'This industry also does not need the kind of networking that is otherwise required in the corporate sector. It has also provided equal, merit-based opportunities to women,' Sundararajan, now a joint secretary in the urban development ministry, said.

Experts say the answer to this also dates back to 50 years when then prime minister Indira Gandhi nationalised 14 top banks in the country, followed by seven more in 1980, and made them adopt a common process of recruitment through competitive tests.

Besides, the working hours of banks were suited to serve the woman's domestic schedules, there was physical proximity to the place of work, the job offered an element of respectability and the profession did not require physical labour.

The result: Banking became a vocation of choice for career-minded women.