India: It’s a woman’s world

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If this was supposed to be the century of the woman, no one thought to tell the international banking community. One country alone has closed the gender gap, and it happens to be Asia’s fastest-growing large economy. Step forward India, where the top ranks of finance are filled with high-flying women.

By Elliot Wilson

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India stands out in the banking world in one astonishing aspect. While women are notable by their absence in the upper echelons of the world’s leading banks, the opposite is true of India, where they run many of the top financial institutions and are highly visible in senior management.

Quite simply, Asia’s third-largest economy is flush with powerful and financially empowered women running commercial lenders, investment banks, private equity houses, insurers and asset managers. 

Top of the list is Arundhati Bhattacharya, the first woman to run State Bank of India, the nation’s largest and most influential lender. She’s not alone when it comes to India’s domestic banks. Chanda Kochhar is CEO of ICICI Bank, India’s largest private lender by assets. Shikha Sharma is CEO of another private-sector powerhouse, Axis Bank. And Usha Ananthasubramanian is head of state-run Punjab National Bank. 

Women also run the local divisions of global banks, for example, Zarin Daruwala at Standard Chartered and Kalpana Morparia at JPMorgan. Naina Lal Kidwai was one of the most prominent female bankers in India for many years, heading the Indian operations of Morgan Stanley and later on HSBC, retiring from the latter at the end of 2015.

Women executives, such as Shanti Ekambaram, head of consumer banking at Kotak Mahindra, are in charge of important market sectors, or are the local eyes, ears and minds of global investment advisers, such as Manisha Girotra, CEO of Moelis India. 

Their power and influence is recognized internationally. When Fortune published its list of the 50 most powerful women outside the US in 2016, Bhattacharya and Kochhar ranked second and fifth respectively, while Sharma made 19th place. Forbes’ list of the world’s most powerful women in finance in 2016 put Bhattacharya and Kochhar in fifth and 10th place respectively, after US Fed chairwoman Janet Yellen, IMF chief Christine Lagarde, Santander executive chairwoman Ana Patricia Botín, and CEO of Fidelity Investments Abigail Johnson. 


My grandmother prioritized marriage over career, but my mother prioritized career over marriage 
 - Manisha Girotra, Moelis India

The prominence and success of women in India’s financial sphere is all the more surprising considering some of the most basic gender inequalities in the country. Overall, women lag men in areas such as literacy, labour force participation, earned income, and in their overall representation on the boards of publicly traded companies, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2016.

So why do they flourish in finance? Are banks, in India at least, embracing the more feminine attributes of collaboration and openness, and of listening rather than telling? Is India spearheading a movement that has just begun, or does this simply mark a point in time when a generation of female pioneers reached the peak? And if the South Asian economy really does have something special going on, could it share its secret with the world?

As is so often the case, the present is informed by a handful of key moments long gone but not forgotten by those who lived through them. To SBI chief Bhattacharya, the first of these, and the vital one in terms of her own career path, took place on July 19, 1969, a few hours before the first man landed on the moon. That night, India’s parliament, backed by Indira Gandhi – another powerful woman – passed a law that nationalized the 14 largest commercial lenders. 

Structural struggle

India’s financial system is still struggling with the structural legacy of that decision, but two of its far-reaching consequences are often overlooked. The first was a surge in state-backed lending, as the government tried to put a rocket under stubbornly low growth rates. 

“The government’s plan was to expand the banking sector massively,” says Bhattacharya. “It happened suddenly and it was huge, and as a result, the banks were forced to employ an awful lot of people who previously had nothing to do with finance.” 

The second, related accelerant was the introduction of a new, unrestricted and nationwide banking examination. “These were open exams that anyone could enter,” the SBI chief says. “You could suddenly get a job on merit – it wasn’t about knowing the right person. You didn’t have to ask for favours to get ahead. You got ahead thanks to your own abilities.” India’s lenders needed many more capable employees, and their gender mattered not one jot. 

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Arundhati Bhattacharya,
SBI

Bhattacharya is proof that this approach worked. She had no prior connection to finance: her father was a steel worker from Chhattisgarh and her mother was a homeopathy consultant. 

Yet since starting out as a probationary officer at SBI, her career has taken in almost the entire range of the bank’s operations, from treasury to foreign exchange, retail lending to human resources, compliance to investment banking, culminating in 2013 with her ascendancy to the highest seat in the house. 

“I was the first woman to become a managing director and then the first chair,” she says, adding wryly: “It’s taken women 35 years to travel to the C-suites, but it has happened." 

It hasn’t always been an easy journey. Bhattacharya admits to having had “a lot of help and support. I was lucky to have a supportive family, and it helped that I actually really enjoy working.” Many of her peers were less fortunate, struggling to justify their careers to in-laws and to balance the competing demands of work and family life. “Women still have a tendency to fall off the ladder, and when they find the demands of family life too much of them, they are forced to decide whether to have one or the other,” Bhattacharya adds. 

The next big change followed a domestic balance of payments crisis in 1991, when, drained of liquidity in the wake of the first Gulf War and struggling to pay its import bill, India teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. But the shock had far-reaching, transformational consequences. 

In came PV Narasimha Rao, a business- and finance-friendly premier, and finance minister Manmohan Singh, the respected architect of reform. Banks including Citi and ANZ Grindlays rushed in to offer advice and capital support to local corporates. In 1994, ICICI Bank and HDFC Bank, two institutions that still dominate lending to the private sector, received bank licences.

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Chanda Kochhar, CEO of ICICI Bank
A door that had previously inched ajar was suddenly thrown wide open. Kochhar and Sharma both joined ICICI Bank when it was founded, moving over from its parent, Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation of India. Kochhar, a co-founder of the new lender, is widely credited with shaping the domestic retail banking market in India. 

Cut-throat

Girotra joined ANZ Grindlays in 1992, long before Standard Chartered gobbled it up. She later moved to UBS, rising to the position of country head, before joining investment boutique Moelis & Company as its India CEO. 

Girotra was talented, but also fortunate enough to be born at the right time. “My grandmother prioritized marriage over career, but my mother prioritized career over marriage,” Girotra says. “She drummed it into me that I needed to stand on my own two feet, that my career was important. A generation before, India was still locked into a feudal mind-set, where female ambition was suppressed. By the time I graduated, things were changing.” 

Banking by now was regarded as a respectable career option for women, as well as a safe one, on a par with teaching or medicine and far from the hurly-burly world of manufacturing. But Girotra laughs at the suggestion that banking in India was somehow less cut-throat than elsewhere, or that the emergence of a golden generation of strong female figures was somehow inevitable. 

“For me at least, I felt huge pressure to make a point, to justify my position,” Girotra says. “I was very cut-throat at times – I felt I had to stand up for myself, and against gender bias. I’d be in meetings where I’d be asked when I was going to leave to get married. In the early days, when a man discriminated against you, and you reported it, the HR department would say: ‘Oh come on, don’t be like that, he was just being nice to you’.” 

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Manisha Girotra,
Moelis India

The pressure to prove herself in the world of investment banking was even higher: most lenders initially saw women as ideal fits for customer-facing roles in branding and retail banking. 

But Girotra proved her mettle as an investment banker, executing deals such as Reliance Power’s $2.6 billion IPO and the $1.2 billion acquisition by United Spirits of Scottish spirits maker Whyte & Mackay during her time at UBS, followed by a $380 million investment of Etihad into Jet Airways, among other deals, after she moved to Moelis.


What is noticeable with several of India’s high-flying women bankers is how seldom they jump ship. Many of them stay with the same bank for decades, working their way up the ranks.

“My conversations with senior women candidates reveal that they think long and hard before making job changes. They give significant weight to the cultural fit of an organisation – it will matter more than financial inducements. This explains why they stay in a place longer and have a clear advantage when they are up for promotions,” says Anand Menon, India director of Hong Kong-based, pan-Asia headhunters EAL Search.

But loyalty alone doesn’t account for their success, he adds.

“The women who reached the top of the mountain in Indian banking are superwomen. Their climb to the top of the peak was not easy. Almost all of these women will have stood out from the start. They will have been fairly evaluated, and at every stage of their development they will have been the better choice for the promotion. This is a special generation of financiers.” 

Can India’s finance industry retain its unofficial global title as ‘most female friendly’? Perhaps, though problems remain, even here. Women make up 7% of seats on boards of publicly traded Indian companies, while 11% of firms have one or more female owners, according to the World Economic Forum. Just 26% of women have a bank account, against half of all men. 

For her part, SBI chair Bhattacharya points to certain female characteristics that, not so long ago, were viewed as faults in a largely masculine world, yet which are now very much in demand. “Women are more empathetic and better listeners, and they tend to elicit input from a wider cross-section of people before making decisions,” she says. 

Women are often less territorial, adds Moelis’ Girotra, and more loyal. “A bank that sticks by a woman while she has a family is more likely to be repaid in kind. Women are far less likely to move to a competing bank just for the sake of a few extra dollars.” 

In her opinion, India can expect to see another generation of female role models rise through the ranks to lead commercial and investment lenders. “I see this being a permanent thing. I can’t say with certainty that the next three CEOs of India’s three biggest banks will be female, but neither is this a flash in the pan. Wherever I look in finance, I see women leading.”