Column: Women aboard

Written by Amit Tandon | Updated: Sep 11 2013, 01:53am hrs
Mao Zedong may have expected Women (to) hold up half the sky, yet men have come to assume that its their sex that is primarily burdened with running corporate enterprises. What else can explain why women account for a mere 5.2% of directors in 1,468 companies listed on the Indian exchanges

A barely commented upon provision in the new Companies Act is set to change this: All listed companies are now expected to have at least one woman director on their board.

But first, is this headcount of women directors relevant Many will argue that the gender equality in hiring at entry level that we see today, when roughly equal number of men and women are hired was not what was witnessed three decades agofrom where todays leaders are being drawn. Well we probably are looking at the wrong data. But even so it is difficult to imagine a very different outcome in future, unless there is a conscious effort to bring about change. Today, even as men and women in far more equal numbers than before step onto the worker treadmill, this proportion continues to change, as people move along the corporate walkway, with more men puffing their way to the retirement line.

In a recent blog in Harvard Business Review, Jill Flynn, Kathryn Heath, and Mary Davis Holt, recognised experts on women's leadership, have listed four reasons why women stunt their careers unintentionallywomen are more modest (less likely than their male colleagues to take credit for their success), not asking (less likely to raise their hand for a new role), blending in (conversely, dont stand out consciously) and remaining silent. What all this means is that men are more confident, and women remain plagued with self-doubts (their words). There are skills that women bringintuitiveness and a more collaborative style of leadership, to list just two. This is in sharp contrast with the more aggressive stance of that men display. A mix of the two is clearly more desirable.

A contrasting argument is that women realise the pointlessness of excess travel and 70-hour work weeks and actually choose a career below their potential. Or that women do not actually want the top job. For one, women start thinking aheadtaking career decisions well in advance of when they want to start a family. This stretches to childbearing and rearing, particularly in the early ears, when women take a disproportionate amount of the load. This leads to attrition with women dropping out, to focus on childcare. This also leads to the early choice of careers, often those which are domesticated, i.e. in which work can be fitted around family life. This decision translates into doing line jobsHR or PR, which seldom leads to the corner office. (this points to the need for companies to become more considerate employers and tweak work practices; this involves offering a flexible work environment, with the emphasis on getting the job done rather than being present in office).

And just why does the above lead to fewer women in the executive suite Because it implies that fewer women reach the threshold of organisational leadership i.e. the pool from which leaders are drawn. As more women reach this threshold, more will find themselves walking into the corner office.

Finally, is this rally for having women on boards mere tokenism or can corporates expect healthier bottom lines Expectedly, the evidence is mixed. While some studies have not found any relationship between having women on boards and financial performance, others have found having them is profitable and have been able to build a strong case in favour of gender diversity on boards.

Although the number of women on the boards of Indian companies is dismal, it has increased from even a decade ago. While some will gripe that it's more wives and daughters who are on the boards, and less professionals, it is worth bearing in mind that promoters have at long last started to acknowledge that their daughters have the same blood running through their veins as their sons.

Indian boards have long needed to be re-energised. And the new companies act has given India Inc the impetus to make this change.

The author is managing director, Institutional Investor Advisory Services India.Views are personal