View from India: Optimise gender diversity and gender parity for better business

Under Indian law, listed companies above a certain size are required to have at least one woman director on board, but women are generally not well represented in senior management across the nation.

Market regulator Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), in compliance with the Companies Act 2013, made it compulsory to have at least one woman on a board from October 2014. While most of the top 1,000 listed companies have complied with SEBI’s directive, boards still have a long way to go before they become part of more inclusive and impactful decision-making processes.

Women form a substantial part of the workforce. “The world is changing in almost all dimensions. Companies could focus on gender diversity and gender parity for better outcomes. Women constitute around 50 per cent of the geography and having them on corporate boards is natural and much required. They could be catalysts for change,” said Dr SK Gupta, former MD and CEO, Insolvency Professional agency of ICMAI and MD, RVO of Institute of Cost Accountants of India; at Assocham’s Boardroom Impact Talk Series – 2022 held virtually.

How do we bring in more women into the board? “Skill development is required. It’s important to groom women to join the board. They need to be offered flexible working hours, given that they have familial responsibilities as well. Covid or not, the company could probably retain remote work options in its operations. They also need to be inducted into mentorship programmes. Women should be able to think and express themselves freely, probably a flat structure may help,” felt Deepa Agarwal, partner, SR Batliboi & Associates LLP.   

Unconventional and unbiased ideas could be encouraged if they are backed by rationale. Rather than scouting around for boardroom candidates, it could be worthwhile to prepare women from within the workforce. There should be channels for women to establish their credentials. Perhaps a chair of authority could be thrown open so that they can make it to C-suite (senior executive) positions and later to the board. If required, the board could also be expanded to include more than one woman.  

“A woman’s perspective on the board is required for holistic corporate decisions. Statutory mandates that a woman on board is necessary. It would be nice to have women from different departments such as the CSR wing, law and marketing for taking various decisions. In that sense, there’s no cookie cutter approach,” said Sonal Mattoo, advocate Helping Hands, independent director V-mart Retail, Ashiana Housing Ltd, Poly Medicure Ltd and director, Azbil.

Women making it to the board is one thing. But it doesn’t end with just that.  After all, the entire board is looking at her, so it’s all the more important that she delivers the goods. Probably women could be given the responsibility of making the company visible through innovative measures. This will enable them to contribute towards the company’s brand-building exercise. They may also be given the task of fulfilling the profit and loss goal. Perhaps this may involve skilling, up-skilling, re-skilling and re-purposing the outlook. While building an inclusive workplace, it’s also essential to source a diverse pipeline.

Then spotting talent may be an art and an exercise as well. On their part, women should look out for board opportunities. Both men and women have equal responsibilities on boards, and women should be more vocal in group discussions. “I’ve had over 38 years of corporate experience and been on over 10 boards. I know how important it is to have an inclusive board. Women need to create a space for themselves on board and make themselves heard,” explained Hiroo Mirchandani, independent director, Crompton Greaves Consumer Electricals Ltd, Tata Teleservices (Maharashtra) Ltd, Nilkamal Ltd and MedPlus Health Services Ltd. Having a quota for including women on board may help. The Companies Act of 2013 has been an enabling factor. “Prior to this there was 5 per cent of representation of women as directors in the corporate world. This has now increased to 17 per cent,” observed Mirchandani. All parameters on board should be equal for men and women.

One stumbling block is that there aren’t many women to chair board meetings. To think of it, women board members may be much younger than their male counterparts. So to that extent, it would be great to have the active participation of women. Also, it may not make sense to have a board full of men who are already on many other boards.

Generally the women who make to the board should have the know-how of the company’s requirements in the present context. To break it down into specifics, women should have skills in e-commerce, digital knowledge. As for recruitments, women may try to get recruited through recruitment agencies. It’s also worthwhile to be visible in public domains and on social media. Networking is a means of getting through to boardrooms. Women may assess themselves, see where they fit in and update their finance acumen by reading the company’s balance sheet, which is not just for the audit department. It may be a good idea to join workshops and use the opportunity to be up-to-date by learning from other board members.

Ideally one third of the board composition should be women. Many Scandinavian companies follow this. Hopefully the board representation of women in Indian companies will increase.    

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