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Women CEOs--Ruling India Inc?

It's the charge of the pink brigade. Riding on the back of changing societal attitudes, and hiring and promotion policies focussed purely on skills, a clutch of professional women executives could soon stake claim to India Inc's most coveted corporate position.

By Nita Jatar Kulkarni & Paroma Roy Chowdhury

It's a boy, Mrs Walker. It's a boy.''
-The Who

Boy? Ha!

Are Women CEOs Different?

At the risk of sounding like the opening chapter of every third management book written this last decade, here goes: today, companies realise the need to change. The reasons for this enlightenment are a rash of phrases like low-entry barriers, global competition, and technology-enabled disintermediation. Suffice it to say that organisations are changing. Large, centralised organisations are giving way to leaner, decentralised ones. To cut out the jargon, a worker in an organisation that has realised the need to change will, probably, count his fellow workers among his friends, and know that he can drop in on the way to the lunch room and greet his company's chief executive.

There is a corresponding shift in leadership styles also. A decentralised organisation calls for a democratic and not a heroic leader. Not a wimp, but someone who actually believes in consensus and participation. But, is there a great difference to the way that women manage? hr mavens believe that men are more likely to display transactional leadership styles (they believe in leading by rewarding or punishing people), while women are more likely to be transformational leaders (they try to match individual and organisational expectations).

Work styles apart, leaner organisations mean that managers need to perform several roles all at once. Traditionally, women have been better at performing multiple roles, given that most women executives did strike some sort of work-life balance. However, managing the home is a shared responsibility in urban households, and several male executives do multi-tasking effectively.

The bottomline? The leadership style that is best suited to this century is the relatively gender-neutral model of a developer manager.

Get used to these pronouns and forms of address tout-de-suite. There's a quiet revolution happening in corporate India. Some time in the future-it could be a month from now; or a few years-one of the female leads of this composition, or a dark horse unknown outside her own company, will shatter the glass ceiling and become mainstream corporate India's first professional woman CEO. She won't be a member of the promoting family; nor a first-generation entrepreneur who is, as is fit, the mistress of her own creation. She will be a professional-an MBA perhaps (a techie, maybe), or a graduate in the arts or the sciences who has worked her way up the hierarchy. It's been done before-we know that-but the as yet anonymous diva who will achieve this feat will be a role-model of sorts, and the herald of the many who will almost certainly follow her.

It could be Vibha Paul Rishi. Only 40 and already Executive Director, (marketing), PepsiCo India (that's right, she's the lady you caught on the telly during the presentation ceremony of one cricket tournament or the other organised by her company). It could be Naina Lal Kidwai (again, young at 43), Vice-Chairman and Head (Investment Banking Operations), Morgan Stanley. It could be the old favourite Lalita Gupte, the 51-year-old COO of ICICI, who's the anointed successor of CEO K.V. Kamath. Or it could be any of a hundred other women in a hundred other organisations.

Still unconvinced? Two women in their early 30s are Lever's listers, members of an exclusive group of young managers Hindustan Lever Ltd considers chairperson-material. Some, like Santanu Sarkara, a 42-year-old executive search consultant at Korn Ferry, believes that this change is finally upon us: ''I don't need to plot a mathematically accurate trend-line to arrive at this conclusion. One look at the number of smart young women holding down senior positions in companies is all it takes: the glass ceiling is going to see a major breach in this decade.''

Accepted, the actual number of women who manage to become CEOs won't be much higher than what a numerically challenged bean-counter can count with the assistance of his digits. A study published by Catalyst, a New York-based women's advocacy group, in June, 2000, shows that women account for a mere 2.4 per cent of the top jobs (and that doesn't just mean only CEOs), at Fortune 500 companies. Although it isn't a great comparison, a recent study (that is restricted to the Indian public sector) carried out by the Forum for Women reveals that less than 1 per cent of the executives in state-owned enterprises were women.

Still, the private sector in India is, if women like Kidwai are to be believed, a whole new ball game: ''There's less pressure on women executives in India to be one of the boys.'' True, the work culture in the better (read: professionally-managed) private sector companies in India is hardly the wasp (Western Anglo-Saxon Protestant) thing that one still encounters in most true-blue American companies, where an individual has to be one of the boys to make it. And the Indian social milieu is, to put it mildly, diverse, making it far easier for women to rise to the top. Agrees Aneeta Madhok, 41, a professor at the Mumbai-based Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies, who is also a hr consultant: ''In India, there are so many different religious and cultural groups that women can be different but yet not be considered curious.''

The timing is just right ...

Why now? It certainly isn't because the GOI is considering amending the Companies Act to the effect that every listed company need have two women directors. The imminent entry of women into corporate corner rooms is a phenomenon caused by the coming together of three disparate threads.

The first is the fact that companies do not wish to lose out on even a small proportion of the best talent doing the rounds. In the words of former Lever Chairman Keki Dadiseth, 53: ''If 20 per cent of the toppers in the IIMS are women, if we do not take them (on), we are losing out on the best.'' At every level-school onwards-the toppers list, more often than not, boasts an equal proportion of men and women (biases, if any, are skewed towards the latter).

Given that, and the perennial shortage of talent everyone speaks about, companies cannot afford to not hire good people, or not promote them, simply because of their sex. Says Meeta Vyas, 41, former CEO of the US-based Signature Brands, and now Secretary-General and CEO of the World Wide Fund For Nature (India): "The present generation of CEOs in their 40s or even the younger ones, have working wives, friends and colleagues, who have sensitised them to the issues that professional women face in the workplace and the need to harness their skills better.''

The second: a decade of liberalisation has created, at least among the managers in better companies, the belief that the sexes are indeed equal. The interested observer will not encounter this in the lower economic strata, but among educated people belonging to the higher income groups and resident in mainstream urban centres. Seconds Sumer Datta, 38, CEO, Noble & Hewitt, India: ''In a top job, or in any job for that matter, it is the skills and attributes you bring in that counts. Gender, in my opinion, is completely irrelevant for a company or a professional recruiter today. About 60 per cent of the employees in my organisation are women and they are hired only for their skills. That they are women is completely secondary.''

The third disparate thread is, simply, timing. Picture this: the first wave of IIT pass-outs left for the greener pastures of the US in the late 1960s and the early 1970s. A decade-and-a-half later, almost a score of them became CEOs of global corporations. Corporate India could be at the threshold of a similar phenomenon, albeit, one concerning women executives. Explains Madhok: ''It takes between 10 and 15 years for people who start their careers as management trainees to reach a stage where they could possibly have a shot at becoming the CEO. I think some women who started their careers in the mid-eighties have reached this stage now.''

Rishi, for instance, who graduated from the Faculty for Management Studies, New Delhi, in 1982, started her career in the Tata Administrative Services, spent a few years at Titan and then moved to Pepsi where she rose from the position of Executive Assistant to the CEO to that of Executive Director (Marketing). And Lalita Gupte, now Joint Managing Director, ICICI, began her career in the project appraisal division of ICICI close to 30 years back.

..but will the trend continue?

Ignore, if for only a moment, all that you hear about how unfair companies are to women. True, the working environment in certain Indian companies is rich enough in sexual-innuendos to make Judge Clarence Thomas cringe; most male managers and male bosses are moderately sexist in at least some of their views; and men do tend to be more networked than women. Still, it isn't any of these things that pose the stiffest challenge to women aspiring to be CEOs. Says Manab Bose, 51, Director (HR), Tata Sons: ''The issue is not about providing infrastructure or opportunities; it's mainly about the choices a woman has to make.'' In other words, the primary impediment to women becoming CEOs comes from within them.

Lal of Morgan Stanley admits that this is indeed the case: ''I think many women executives stray away mid-career because of personal reasons.'' In most cases, the 'personal reasons' take the form of family and children. A woman who takes even a year off to bear a child and start a family is missing out on a year on the fast-track.

Typically, this is something that happens when the executive is still trying to stand out in a crowd of ambitious, and equally-talented, peers. And, although a few companies have often spoken about tweaking their policies to ensure that the careers of women who take time off to start a family are not affected, the old world view was that this is not a practicable solution. Some women like Camellia Panjabi, 59, Executive Director, Indian Hotels, thinks that still holds true: ''Companies cannot foster gender-specific practices.''

A few women executives like Amrita Patel, the 55-year-old chairperson of the National Dairy Development Board, take the extreme way out. No marriage. No family. Says Patel: ''If you have to get anywhere in your career, you cannot ask for concessions.'' Adds Lalita Gupte: ''Never make excuses if you are a woman. I never asked for a flexi-time option. That would have been the end of my career.''

The new generation of potential women-CEOs, though, seems to have been able to achieve a balance. Vibha Desai, the 37-year-old executive director and head of the Delhi branch of Ogilvy & Mather, is the mother of two daughters; Smita Anand, the 41-year-old head of the Change Practice of PricewaterhouseCoopers, has two sons. She says: "Women's skills synergise well with the fast-paced business environment today where the only constant is change." Adds Desai: "Women who continue to be in the workforce after marriage and children are clearly committed and determined to succeed. Companies need to be flexible in their attitude to harness their potential. If someone cannot come early or stay late or travel frequently because of a baby or a family, but is a top performer otherwise, why should this be an issue?" Adds Gitu Gidwani Verma, 33, Marketing Controller, Frito-Lay: ''When I was hired from the FMS campus in late eighties by P&G, one of the first things that I was quizzed about were my plans regarding marriage and family. Now, no one in these companies would dream of asking a woman professional such questions. Today, if a woman manager is skilled, committed, and has the right attitude, organisations have no problems accommodating her needs. They would do this and much more as a premium for the skills."

The recent emergence of unconventional career options can be counted as another factor that will help the cause of women who do not wish to compromise on either work or life. The woman of the house could manage a successful business from home. Or the man of the house could, while his wife clocks-in those critical hours at her CFO job. In some cases, women in senior executive positions have spouses who are, themselves, senior executives.

With due apologies to David Ogilvy (whose best-seller Confessions Of An Advertising Man, in the most politically-incorrect of ways, is better known than Jane Moss' Confessions Of An Advertising Woman), the CEO isn't a moron-she's your wife.


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