Priyanka Golikeri & Megha Mandavia l Bangalore/Mumbai
October 1996. Export-Import Bank gets a new chairperson – Tarjani Vakil. It is the first time a woman has got to head any financial institution in the country, nearly 50 years after Independence.
Cut to November 2012.
There are a dozen women at the helm of banks and financial institutions, and at least as many (at levels such as country head, executive director, president, etc) who are waiting to ascend.
That easily makes it the sector with the most number of women bosses, compared with say manufacturing, energy, consumer goods and information technology, where the top decks are full of men.
Whatever happened to the famed glass ceiling, that invisible roof which stopped women from going up the organisational hierarchy beyond a point?
“As long as you can walk the talk with respect to deliverables, the ‘glass ceiling’ is more in the mind. More than glass ceiling, it’s about acceptability,” says Sanju Verma, MD and CEO of financial services firm Violet Arch Capital Advisors.
Indeed, the acceptability of women workers has improved vastly since Vakil, and not just at the top.
A year ago, the Institute of Banking Personnel Selection, the agency running entrance exams noted that about 40% of applicants for bank jobs, both clerical and officer grade, are women.
Just a few years ago, that figure stood at 15-20%.
Predictably, the female:male ratio has also improved — 40:60 at the clerical level and 25:75 for officers.
DNA talked to many of the chieftains, on what has worked for them and what hasn’t. Most, like Verma, said there was no glass ceiling as such, though the road to the top is competitive, highly cut-throat.
Natural flair to handle money
Women have always been in strong numbers in the banking sector, says Shubhalakshmi Panse, CMD, Allahabad Bank.
This may have something to do with the fact that traditionally, women have been adept at handling household finances and managing budgets. “You will always find women holding the reins and controlling finances,” says Verma.
Then, customary roles like accounting, sales and finance, which need a blend of soft skills and an eye for detail, are qualities that come naturally to women, says Roopa Kudva, MD and CEO, Crisil.
Moreover, banking, especially retail banking, has long been a natural career choice for a whole host of women in India, says Manjari Kumar, an officer with Canara Bank.
For every woman CEO or MD, there are thousands of others at the manager, officer or clerk level who have chosen the sector for the social security reasons it has on offer, believes Kumar, a mother of two school-going kids from Bangalore.
“A conducive environment, job security (in public sector and cooperative banks), effective work hours are benefits a bank job brings, vis a vis other jobs in say sales or marketing,” says Kumar.
Kudva predicts that over the next decade, there is a strong likelihood of a scenario where senior women leaders would increasingly lead teams having a high percentage of women members.
But getting to the top at a bank, or even at the branch or team level comes with its own set of problems and prejudices for women.
Both Verma and Kudva admit stereotypes exist sharply for ladies. “People question whether the lady is indeed intelligent and hardworking enough to merit the position. No such doubts are raised for men who scale the ladder,” says Verma.
Kudva believes that while the path to the top does not come easy for any candidate, in the initial phase of their careers, women have to prove themselves harder. “As a woman it is probably a tougher task to establish yourself within the first decade or so of your career, than what it takes to emerge as a leader,” says Kudva.
Once a woman rises to the top, it gets backed by a sound track record. “Then, in my view, the fact that you are a woman becomes irrelevant.”
By the time a woman reaches the managerial level, she also faces pressures in the form of family commitments.
“Even in the 1970s when I had joined as probationary officer, women were in great numbers in banks. But only those who had complete family support could take up promotions,” says Panse.
Kumar says, as the role in the organisation grows in size and stature, a bank job slowly starts losing its fixed-timing appeal. “You can no longer leave office when the branch closes. You have to travel intra-city on work assignments. This frequently forces most women to reconsider their career plans.”
Many a times, such circumstances necessitate women to opt out of their careers, says Kudva.
However, Panse believes that to grow in the profession, women must seek transfers to get the necessary exposure that comes from dealing with customers and borrowers from different cities and cultures. “I feel women must not just seek inter-city transfers, but also go in for inter-region or inter-zonal transfers.”
Hamsini Menon, former MD of State Bank of Mysore, says reaching the top has not been a cakewalk. “With a family, the journey is never easy. But often, the hard-work and perseverance pays off.”
Apart from family support and the efforts that the women themselves put in, organisational support in the form of favourable work hours, extended maternity leave, etc are crucial to retain women within the workforce, say experts.
“Only with full family and organisation support did I manage to reach this level,” says Panse.
The journey to the top involves acquiring specific skills, namely good communication capabilities, a consultative style, ability to run multiple agendas simultaneously and capacity to handle ambiguities and differences – all aspects that are key in a male-dominant corporate world.
While mentoring is crucial for grooming leaders of the future, the ladies admit that since men tend to network better, they not only have greater access to informal mentoring, but also acquire an edge that helps them zoom up the organisation ladder.
“Men can network over cocktails. But there is a limit beyond which it is not possible for women to network. Women should be groomed on how best to communicate and network within their organisations,” says Panse.
Kudva says women stand to greatly benefit through active mentoring programmes. “Very often it is about getting the right inputs and support for staying on course during certain critical phases in one’s personal life.”