Like her hyphenated last name, Biocon’s founder and chairman Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw is a woman of many parts. She juggles her professional, diplomatic (she is honorary consul general of Ireland), community (she heads BPAC, an action group that focuses on Bangalore) and myriad social commitments with skilful ease. Now, the already frenetically busy Mazumdar-Shaw is much in demand in an entirely new capacity: companies want the experienced business leader on their board of directors.
In India, the absence of women on corporate boards is embarrassingly noticeable. But there are signs that some large companies are finally beginning to see the need for gender diversity. In the last few weeks alone, Mazumdar-Shaw has accepted two new positions — as independent board member at Infosys and as chairperson of the board of governors at IIM Bangalore. She won’t reveal how many more positions she has turned down.
However, Mazumdar-Shaw does admit that there is a limited pool to choose from as women in leadership positions are few in India. “So the same few names are being head-hunted,” she says. Like her, peers Renu Sud Karnad and Ireena Vittal are in great demand too. Each of them holds a surprisingly high number of board positions. Besides the HDFC board, Karnad is on the boards of BPO, budget housing and manufacturing firms, both Indian and multinational. Vittal is on the boards of software, beverage, hotel and consumer goods firms.
The race to get women on board is only going to get more frantic. The Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi) has just approved a proposal mandating that every listed company have at least one woman director on its board. Nearly a thousand companies will have to comply by the October 1 deadline. Even India’s largest enterprises, such as Reliance Industries, TCS and Larsen & Toubro, do not have a woman director. The search is on in earnest.
Too few women, too many board positions, describes Arun Duggal, chairman of Shriram Capital who leads a mentorship programme that aims to get high potential women executives on to boards. “There are about a hundred very distinguished women who are in great demand and are already on board positions. Beyond that the supply dwindles. How does one build a pipeline of women who can fill board positions?” he asks.
The representation of women on corporate boards is currently at an abysmal low of about 6 per cent. Of the top 500 companies on the Mumbai Stock Exchange, at least 300 do not have a single woman on their boards, says Duggal. “They have to scrounge to get women board members.” In Duggal’s programme, the first batch of 50 women has just completed the six-month mentorship, but none have made it into a board so far. Despite the Sebi requirement, the placement process is not looking easy, he says. Changing a rule is easy, changing mindsets is much harder.
Meanwhile, another development is discomfiting. Since Sebi has not stipulated that the women have to be independent board members, many promoter-led companies will likely recruit women amongst family and friends to come aboard. “Promoters will start putting their daughters and nieces on their boards,” said Duggal.
Not every company can get a Mazumdar-Shaw, Karnad or Vittal. But some are not even trying. They are looking to follow the rule in letter while subverting its spirit by their actions.
In this aspect, companies could begin to resemble hierarchies in mouldy political parties. Women are represented, but it is nearly always somebody’s wife or daughter.
Mazumdar-Shaw says things have to change. She was surprised to learn that she would be the first woman to head the board of governors at an IIM. “It’s all still an old boys’ club. It’s time women broke into this male bastion!” she said.
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