Nursing, human resource management, sales. These were the areas where women were expected to excel. Areas where they could nurture, mould, cajole. An extension, in a sense, of their mothering capabilities.
Manufacturing, stockbroking, banking and finance. These were considered ‘males-only’ areas. Areas where clinical analytical skill and ruthless decision-making were required, not high emotional quotients and empathy.
This attitude was not an Indian, but a global one. And it is now changing.
In a culture where the woman’s role as mother is revered and the wife is always a homemaker, even if she is also an executive, it has taken a shift in mindset to get to the point where seven national Indian banks are headed by women.
But as husbands, parents and in-laws urge rather than dissuade the working woman from taking each fresh step up the corporate ladder — and, critically, lend a hand in running the home and raising the children — more women are grabbing top jobs in Indian companies.
From premium liquor brands and coffee chains to oil drilling majors, companies have begun nurturing women employees and promising junior executives. And they are doing so not just with a gender-neutral approach in assigning tasks and according promotions but also with women-specific programmes that recognise the demands of family and society on the wife and mother, allowing for flexible working arrangements, long sabbaticals and even special counselling.
The results are showing. US food giant Heinz, consumer goods major Colgate-Palmolive, breakfast cereal major Kellogg’s, oil-drilling multinational Shell and British liquor major Diageo, the makers of Johnnie Walker whiskies are all led by women chief executives in India. In the financial services sector, women such as Chanda Kochhar and Naina Lal Kidwai are heading major banks.
And experts say companies in the manufacturing sector, which did not traditionally attract many women, are now increasingly appointing woman CEOs.
“The recent increase in the number of top women executives reflects the fact that women started joining companies in large numbers 20 to 30 years ago,” says Kochhar, head of ICICI Bank. “It takes time to build a career and reach a leadership position, and that is why we are seeing large numbers of women in leadership positions now.”
Women currently occupy 14% of senior management positions in corporate India. Kidwai, head of HSBC India and president of industry body FICCI (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry), says this reflects a change in mindset, and reflects the fact that companies have also become sensitive to the needs of their woman employees.
“For example, say 20 years ago, there were no proper hotels in remote areas and the working environment too was not encouraging for women to take on challenging jobs,” Kidwai adds.
Family support, of course, is critical.
“Setting the right expectations at work and at home is the key to a healthy work-life balance,” says Avani Saglani Davda, CEO of Tata Starbucks Limited.
And now, the government is doing its bit too. The recently passed Companies Act mandates that listed companies have at least one woman director on the board.
“It is important to have woman representation on boards of companies — public and private — and since this has not happened all these years, we have now had to make it mandatory,” says Sachin Pilot, union minister for corporate affairs.
As organisations and private companies struggle with a scarcity of talent, the smarter ones are beginning to recognise the opportunity inherent in grooming women, says Aditya Mishra, president of HR consulting firm Randstad India.
Adds Rajiv Burman, managing partner at executive search firm Lighthouse: “Women are better at multi-tasking and managing stress in their professional and personal lives. They are better man managers, because they tend to have higher emotional quotients. And with companies and families now recognising the value and validity of women’s aspirations, things are set to get even better.”
Yasmine Hilton, 57
Chairperson of petroleum company Shell India, based in Delhi the first woman chairperson of Shell India, Yasmine Hilton likes to say that this will be her last job. When she leaves, she adds, it will be to retire.
Hilton began her career with the group, and has occupied various positions for the company at its holdings around the world for nearly 35 years.
Hilton started out wanting to be a doctor, but realised she didn’t have the stomach for it and completed a degree in zoology, then a PhD in Population Genetics. Starting her career in exploration and production, Hilton became the first woman chief information officer at Shell UK in 1992, and was later promoted to global CIO, handling IT systems across five continents for Shell’s retail business. In November 2012, she was appointed chairperson of Shell India.
The mother of two says what helped her professional journey is that Shell is gender-neutral when it comes to assignments and promotions and accommodates the unique needs of women and their cultural context, offering flexible working arrangements and personal sabbaticals of up to two years.
— Anupama Airy
Vijayalakshmi Rajesh, 41
Director of Phalada Agro Research Foundation Pvt Ltd, based in Bangalore
A BCom graduate with a diploma in computer applications, Vijayalakshmi started her career in 1993, as an executive assistant with a company exporting leather garments.
Ambitious and hard-working, she learnt the tricks of the trade on the job and, three years later, joined another leather exports company, Club Collections, working under a young and up-and-coming industrialist named CMN Shastry, 55.
Shastry was eager to identify people he could trust as he expanded his group of companies. Vijayalakshmi was one. Over the next 12 years, she worked her way up step by step until, in 2009, she was appointed director of group company Phalada Agro Research. “Our company is running with a good turnover because of the efficiency of Vijayalakshmi,” says CMD Shastry.
Vijayalakshmi says part of the reason for her success has been the support of her family — husband, parents, son and mother-in-law — and her company.
“Whenever I have faced a family emergency, the company has given me the time I need. Similarly, during fire-fighting days at the office, my husband and my entire family would lend a hand and encourage me to keep going,” she says.
— Naveen Ammembala
Amisha Vora, 47
Joint MD of equity brokerage company Prabhudas Lilladher Group, based in Mumbai
One of four sisters from a Gujarati family, Vora received support and encouragement from her father when she decided to work in an equity research firm after graduating in chartered accountancy.
“After I married at 23, my husband supported me immensely,” says Vora, who quit her job in 1991 to co-found a financial consultancy, Network Investments, with a colleague, Dilip Bhat.
Over the subsequent eight years, she expanded her company while juggling motherhood. In 1999, she and Bhat joined the PL Group as vice-presidents.
As business grew, Vora began travelling for up to 20 days a month. “I missed out on my son’s school competitions and sporting events. But my husband respected the fact that I work, so automatically my son grew to respect it too,” says Vora.
Under Vora and Bhat, meanwhile, PL expanded its client base from 21 in 2001 to 225 in 2008, while also expanding its franchisee centres across India. Vora says the road to the top has been fairly smooth for her. “But if you are informed, well-read and capable of reason, then you will always create a good impression.”
— Aarefa Johari