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ET Women's Forum: Gender imbalance in boardrooms isn't deliberate, India must wipe out unconscious biases

Getting more women on boards in India remains only a trickle-down effect.

ET Bureau|
Updated: Feb 11, 2019, 12.45 PM IST
(From left) Ireena Vittal, Brenda Trenowden and Shikha Sharma
(From left) Ireena Vittal, Brenda Trenowden and Shikha Sharma
Men need to stand up, women need to be who they are and unconscious biases needs to be overcome if India Inc is to truly benefit from the value that comes with having more women serving on corporate boards, panelists at the ET Women’s Forum concluded.

Ireena Vittal, an independent director on many boards, Shikha Sharma, former Axis Bank head and Brenda Trenowden, head, Financial Institutions Group-Europe at ANZ Bank and the Global Chair of the 30% Club, which is working to have more women on corporate boards in the UK and Europe, were part of a panel that discussed why and how India Inc should also aim to have at least 30% of directors as women.

For over a decade now, Trenowden has been building a strong case why FTSE100 companies need to have more women directors.

It was a candid discussion, and intense in addressing the issues at hand, but not without humour.

Vittal said India has to challenge an unconscious bias on the subject. She cited the example of a blue chip company which set up a strategic team to address a crucial issue, but did not pick any women on this team. “The list didn’t include a single woman. And it was not deliberate at all. This wonderful organisation was not even aware of this gap until pointed out,” she said.

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“We get CEOs to set targets and influence public policy on why it is important for men and women to work together. It is about better engagement with communities and investors,” Trenowden said. The 30% Club was birthed in the UK, but has since also branched out into 11 countries.

There is still only a trickle-down effect when it comes to getting more women on boards in India, Shikha Sharma said. “It is too early to say a major change is happening in this regard. We want men to understand the value of having women on boards.”

Often gender imbalance on boards or in the top management is not deliberate. “It is not intentional. Men do not say keep the women out. Operating within a particular network, they are (just) unaware of the talent pool,” Trenowden said.
ET Women's Forum: Gender imbalance in boardrooms isn't deliberate, India must wipe out unconscious biases

Left to itself, the gender balance on India Inc’s boards is unlikely to correct quickly, Vittal said. She argued that an old-fashioned quota system may perhaps be required. “Behaviours change after experience, but for that to happen, it’s important to bite and for that quota is important,” she said.

Amidst laughter, Vittal also advised women to get familiar with balance sheets, understand the operations and ask tough questions or be prepared to go to jail (if there are governance negligences in the boards they serve on).

In the midst of this need and clamour for more women on boards, Sharma, however, advised women not to pretend to be what they are not.

“Be yourself, work quietly and those who deserve to be at that place will definitely get the recognition,” she said.

This panel was moderated by Taneia Bhardwaj, senior news editor, ET NOW.

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