09-Mar-2011

Getting to the top

Yesterday, there was news about a proposed revision in the new Companies Bill which states that in case of any board having 5 or more independent directors, atleast one director should be a woman.

This was dolled out on Women’s Day as spectacular progress in the march towards male-female equality.

Frankly I am all for quotas. I appreciate the fact that certain sections of the society just don’t have the same kind of access and privileges that other parts of the society has on account of legacy issues that have existed for centuries. I am quite ok with college seats reserved for backward communities. I am ok with panchayat seats reserved for women. I am also ok with women progressively getting higher representation in the parliament (The way politics works in our country, it is not like there are too many well qualified, honest, deserving male politicians who will be replaced by female novices).

However, in this case it is a whole new ball game. Will this reservation actually achieve much?

Which brings me to the question, what do independent directors actually do? I remember reading the annual report of an Indian airline company a few years ago. It listed movie luminaries among its independent directors. I nearly fell off my chair wondering exactly how they contributed to the running of an airline. Sure, they were brilliant in their own fields, but seriously!

If they really don’t do much, then perhaps this would amount to mere tokenism. And that won’t do us much good.

If, hypothetically, the quota were extended to actual executive board members, then would it still make much sense?

An entry level job is a fairly equal opportunity role. At that level, it does not matter if a slightly less qualified person gets the job.

On the other hand, an executive role in the board is a job that requires someone who has experience and exposure. Unfortunately, even with the best of intentions it will be difficult for a company to work with an executive board, some of whose members may not really yet be ready for the job. We simply don’t have enough women to go around today.

More women at the top level is not a problem that can be solved overnight by legislation. It is a long term issue that requires recognition of the fact that women are intelligent and capable; however they need support to get to the top. The support is needed on account of the simple fact that we live in a world that is biased and tuned towards men.

The good news is women in my generation and the following ones are already making strides. More women are passing out of colleges. More women are entering the workforce. So perhaps it is not that women are losing out by not entering the race at all. It is more what happens during the course of a working career.

In the last ten years of working, I have noticed that women are the ones who are considered as the primary stakeholders in bringing up kids and running a home. Legislation cannot change society’s attitudes in one day, but legislation can certainly help.

Especially during the crucial child bearing years when a lot of women drop out from too little support at home and too much pressure at work. Not to mention the usual overwhelming male work culture that treats women who attend PTAs or stay home to look after a sick child as corporate world's greatest evil.

Effective child support systems, especially by offices themselves would help. Flexible hours, part time work and work-from-home would help. Sure a couple of years will be lost from handling too little responsibility but atleast women are still in the race.

A bit more radically - maybe legislation to start changing men’s roles in society could help. If men were given three months childcare leave, same as women, then perhaps they would be more engaged at home as well? (Am assuming at some point enough men will take up the offer to ensure that is not odd that men take time off to look after their own kids)

Will these change the ratio at the top? I can’t see so far into the future where there will be more women than men at the top but I can atleast see a reasonable dent being made in the balance.

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