Venus on descendant sparks call for quotas

Written by Soma Das | Rishi Raj | New Delhi | Updated: Apr 21 2012, 09:22am hrs
If you want to see one place where the business school philosophy of management diversity is turned on its head, look no further than the boardrooms of Indias top listed companies.

Women form a mere 5% on the boards of blue chip Indian firms, though they are 48% of the countrys population. In sharp contrast, women form 14% of companies in the European Union and 40% in Norway. According to a McKinsey study based on 2010 data, India fares worse than BRIC peers Brazil (7%), Russia (8%) and China (6%).

Is India not churning out enough qualified women to be considered for top posts Or are there systemic barriers preventing them from climbing the ladder to influence top-level decision-making Most importantly, is it time India considered quotas for women on corporate boards, at least for listed firms

Some of India Inc's most distinguished women leaders have started thinking that a quota could finally do what a lot of goodwill and recognition of women's contribution could not help eligible women claim what is rightfully theirs in the board rooms.

HSBC country head Naina Lal Kidwai does not agree that there are not enough capable women in the country to join boards. The truth, she says, is Indian companies dont try hard enough. I think we need a quota. We need a quota to make it happen initially and then you remove it, she said. Biocons chairman Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw also calls for an exception for positive discrimination to be made in this context.

I am not one for quotas. However, given that there are very few women on corporate boards, I believe that reluctantly, I would submit that there is a need for affirmative action that would mandate at least one independent, non-executive woman board member and at least one executive woman board member to begin with, she said.

Lupin Pharma Inc CEO Vinita Gupta concedes there have been dramatic changes in the last few decades, as confirmed by the presence of women CEOs in many industries. She, however, feels a quota for women will definitely add to the momentum. A quota would definitely expedite this process and compel some sceptical organisations to embrace change to give women much-deserved opportunities, Gupta said.

Many women leaders call for corporate governance guidelines to ensure a desired level of women's representation and a window of self-regulation for industry before considering a mandatory quota.

I do believe we should frame corporate governance norms in such a way that can encourage companies to take steps in the direction of inducting more qualified women in company boards. To start with, there can be guidelines, not an enforceable quota, which could give companies a chance to work in that direction, said Swati Piramal, director, Piramal Healthcare. She told FE that at the time she was heading Assocham, she recommended 20% as the desired level of representation of women on boards of large listed firms.

Jagi Mangat Panda, promoter, Ortel feels if self-regulation fails, quotas could follow. After talking about bridging the gender gap for decades now, women still have only 4-5% representation on boards and this is not because women are not good at that kind of work. In a country as large as India, there are many qualified women who can easily take up these positions. So clearly, something needs to be done, maybe some radical steps are required and quotas seem to me to be a necessary counter-balance to the well-known biases, Panda said. This comes at a time when EU is debating whether quotas are the right way to improve women's participation in corporate boards.

Former Thermax chairperson Anu Aga feels if more women enter the workplace on their own merit, it would be foolish for corporates not to invite them to join the boards. That would be denying organisations and society the benefit of diversity, which again can be self-defeating.