South Asia: a hotspot for women bankers
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South Asia: a hotspot for women bankers

South Asia is in some ways a better place for women bankers than almost anywhere else in the region. But there are still serious problems.

Is there a region of the world that welcomes women into positions of power more eagerly than South Asia? Reach back in time to Razia Sultana, the 13th century Muslim ruler of the Indian city of Delhi, or forward to the late Benazir Bhutto, a two-time prime minister of Pakistan.

Politics provides a benchmark of a society’s willingness to be led by a strong woman, but the region is also a leader in finance and business. A host of regional and international banks in recent years had or have female CEOs.

Consider Arundhati Bhattacharya, the first woman to run State Bank of India (SBI), or Luna Shamsuddoha, the current chairwoman of Bangladesh’s Janata Bank. Women run the local divisions of several global banks – for example, Zarin Daruwala, Indian CEO at Standard Chartered, and Kalpana Morparia, JPMorgan’s Indian CEO – or are seen as leaders in their field, like Shanti Ekambaram, group president, consumer banking at Kotak Mahindra Bank.

Women are highly represented in South Asia, all the way up to boardroom level. According to 2019 data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, women occupy on average 15.9% of the board seats at India’s largest corporations.

That lags Western Europe: the UK is on 32.6% and France on 45.2%. But it is ahead of most Asian countries, including China (11.4%), Indonesia (10.1%) and Japan 8.4%.

Bankers point to a host of reasons to explain South Asia’s regional pre-eminence in gender diversity.

Education is one. Suvendrini Muthukumarana, vice president, finance, at Sri Lanka’s National Development Bank, notes that the country’s schooling system “values boys and girls equally highly”. She adds: “That’s where all the later positive gender results in finance and banking come from.”

Sandra Walgama, deputy general manager, personal banking, at Commercial Bank of Ceylon (CBC), connects the firm’s “open culture”, which treats men and women as “all equal”, to the island’s history of universal suffrage. The fact that Sri Lankan women were given full voting rights in 1931 – 17 years before the island secured independence – is a key reason they “never felt second rate”, she reckons. When India and Pakistan gained independence in 1947, both immediately gave women the right to vote.

Culture pushes the woman to raise the family, to work from home while the man goes out to make a living. That is the only hurdle we have to jump.
Sandra Walgama, Commercial Bank of Ceylon
Sandra Walgama, Commercial Bank of Ceylon

Women in South Asia do face one issue that others across the world deal with: the expectation that, when children come along, they will be the ones to stay home.

“Culture pushes the woman to raise the family, to work from home while the man goes out to make a living. That is the only hurdle we have to jump,” says Walgama, who oversees 267 retail branches in her home market.

Another senior female banker notes: “I've had male bosses tell me that I shouldn't take on such challenging work, that I should take care of my family first. I always react by professionally and very politely saying that I can take on my work, and that I don’t have issues at home or at work.”

For Fouzia Janjua, head of account services, alternate distribution channels and consumer operations at the Karachi-based Habib Bank, the first big test came on day one. Hired as a 21-year-old graduate by Citi’s Pakistan division in 1991, she was shipped straight off to Singapore for an immersive training programme. But the big city experience proved nothing compared to the stress of small-town whispers.

“It was very challenging, even with my family and friends,” she says. “My father was told by his friends and neighbours – your daughter shouldn’t be leaving at 8:45am and coming back at 7:00pm.”

She stuck at it, though, and her three-decade career has taken her from Citi, to First Women Bank, set up in 1989 by then-premier Bhutto to meet the financial needs of Pakistani women, and finally to Habib Bank.

South Asian mothers also have more support than those elsewhere. The region’s legal system, and a parliamentary system that favours strong family structures, works to give career women a helping hand. Maternity leave is 12 weeks in Sri Lanka, rising to 13 in Pakistan and 16 in Bangladesh. India’s 26 weeks is more than anywhere else in Asia.

It also helps that across the region, most families are tightly knit, so support from parents or in-laws is never far away.

“Culturally, we have care-givers, particularly our parents, who help to look after our children. In Western countries that is not the case,” says NDB’s Muthukumarana. “This makes it easier for women to work, to be given a chance to excel, to avoid having to dump your career for a few years when you have a family.”

The big changes

You can argue that for women in India, a key fork in the road has a day and a date.

On July 19, 1969, the country’s first female prime minister, Indira Gandhi, nationalised India’s banking sector. When Euromoney spoke to former SBI chair Bhattacharya, she described that event as a monumental one for her career – and for thousands of other women in India.

Gandhi’s decision forced many of the newly state-owned banks to hire quickly and massively, and to introduce a new nationwide hiring exam open to men and women alike.

Suddenly, a banking job was not only socially acceptable, but also safe, and a position that could be gained on merit. “You didn’t have to ask for favours to get ahead,” Bhattacharya said. “You got ahead thanks to your own abilities.”

Others reckon the big change has taken place very recently, over the past one or two decades, both in finance and across the rest of society. Outside of Sri Lanka, literacy rates remain a worry in South Asia. According to Unesco data, barely two thirds of women in Pakistan aged 15-24 can read and write. But for those in wealthier families across the subcontinent, particularly in the cities and the middle classes, young women are more likely to realise their ambitions than ever before.

Kotak Mahindra’s Ekambaram points to an “exponential increase in women joining the workforce” since the turn of the millennium.

“In the last two decades, even traditional business families have encouraged girls to go into business post-education, and many have donned leadership roles. The late 1990s and early 2000s is when women began rising to the corner office. That too has played a key role in getting more women into senior management positions.”

Data everywhere bears this out: the more female role models there are in an organisation, the greater the chance that other women will follow. When you set a benchmark like this, it sets firm.

Of course, while clambering upon the first rung of the corporate financial ladder has never been easier for women, getting to the top remains a major hurdle.

The most illuminating part of researching for this story was the revealing tales of human development. None of the woman interviewed here came from a family that was either particularly wealthy, or deeply connected to their domestic banking industry. All wanted to be bankers (sometimes for no readily explicable reason) and were able to achieve their dreams because of the positive prevailing environment.

Bhattacharya’s father was a steel worker from Chhattisgarh. Her mother was a homeopathy consultant. Habib Bank’s Janjua says her mother wanted her to follow in her elder sister’s footsteps and be a doctor. But a distaste for dissecting animals meant she “opted for studying commerce and finance”, earning her MBA from Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.

Kotak’s Ekambaram took an aptitude test in eleventh grade that pointed her toward a career in engineering. “But I was clear that I wanted to pursue finance and the business of money,” she says. “I don’t know why – I didn’t know what it meant then.”

Her advice to young women setting out in banking – or returning to a career in the industry after some time out – is to “follow your instincts”. Gumption helps too. She interviewed for a role for Scotiabank (then Bank of Nova Scotia) in 1987 before passing her Chartered Accountant exams – but got the job anyway.

Four years after that, keen for a new challenge, she interviewed for positions at both Standard Chartered and Deutsche Bank. But it was a conversation with Uday Kotak, the founder of a then obscure non-bank finance company, that caught her attention.

“I liked the vision that Uday outlined for financial services and the big picture that he envisioned,” she says. “I took the plunge. So instead of joining a big foreign bank I joined a smaller non-bank finance company on a slightly lesser salary. That journey began in 1991, and the rest is history.”

She began on the trade finance desk, set up Kotak’s M&A desk when it launched an investment bank, then oversaw its successful joint venture with Goldman Sachs. When the firm got its full financial operating license in 2003 and became Kotak Mahindra Bank, she was made president of corporate and investment banking, and is now a member of its group management council.

It’s easy to overlook how much some, but by no means all, of the region’s best banks have done for the cause of gender inclusivity and diversity. Since the start of 2018, Habib Bank’s main digital platforms, HBL Konnect and HBL Mobile, have brought 3.7 million unbanked citizens into the financial system, 60% of which are women.

Habib’s Janjua points to the bank’s diversity council, which has been key to the introduction of flexible working time for mothers and longer maternity leave. “Kudos to the management team for doing that,” she says. The bank formally celebrates International Women’s day in March, and Pink Ribbon Day in October, to raise awareness of breast cancer.

Kotak Mahindra has “not shied away from giving women opportunities”, says Ekambaram. She adds: “True gender diversity programmes are about making a difference – not about doing it because it is fashionable. We need a mammoth inflow of women at the management trainee level across the banking industry…”

She says the Mumbai-based lender has “doubled diversity levels over the past three years”, in part by working hard to retain female employees at the point where they set out to have a family. The period when a woman has a child is “critical”, she says. It’s “the key time when an organisation must provide maximum support to a woman, ensuring a bank has female-friendly policies in place during the 10 years of her career between the ages of 28-38.”

You can’t stop everyone leaving of course. But you can always give people the chance to return, and it helps when they feel wanted.

Under its ‘Second Innings’ programme, Kotak “keeps in touch with lots of our former women employees, and encourages them to return to the bank during the second stage of their career,” Ekambaram says. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. Returning to a financial institution after some time away “isn’t always easy”, she admits.

Security issues

South Asia doesn’t have all the answers. There are plenty of challenges here for women looking to build a career in banking.

An often overlooked issue is personal mobility – and not in a metaphorical sense. “For women in South Asian countries, a key difficulty is that we lack good public transport, so the commute time can become very hard,” says Habib Bank’s Janjua. “That makes it doubly difficult to raise a family and have a work life.”

She was forced to change jobs three times by employers determined to move her from her hometown to Karachi, where most Pakistan banks are headquartered. “The support of my late husband and parents was instrumental in making my career and creating a healthy work-life balance,” she says.

“For women in South Asian countries, a key difficulty is that we lack good public transport, so the commute time can become very hard.”
Fouzia Janjua, Habib Bank
Fouzia Janjua Habib Bank.jpg

This is no small factor. The ability to travel on public transport or in a private vehicle in safety is a serious personal security issue. In Mumbai, trains have women-only carriages to ensure passengers aren’t molested, particularly during rush hour. This is one of the reasons lenders like Habib Bank and Kabul-based Afghanistan International Bank put on private transport for female staff.

But women still need to think and plan ahead, in ways that men mostly do not.

One banker, whose job entails a lot of travel in her home country, says she “always uses the same driver” when she travels from the capital to outlying towns and villages. She adds: “I never take a new driver, and I always stay in the same hotels. I feel safe – but as a woman, you are always a little more aware of personal situations.”

Some parts of the region are, for obvious reasons, almost no-go zones for working women.

Afghanistan’s AIB is one of the troubled country’s most progressive employers. Over 80% of its female staff go to college. It offers comprehensive crèche and childcare facilities, and its Female Employees Advancement & Development (FEAD) committee hears all allegations of harassment.

But even AIB has to respect certain cultural boundaries. In addition to being its head of trade finance, Mariam Qaderi also chairs the bank’s FEAD committee. She notes that while the bank has plenty of women employees at branches in big cities like Kabul and Herat, it has no female staff in more traditional provinces like Kandahar.

There are few banks that do not claim to take sexual harassment allegations seriously these days. But having a system in place is one thing; ensuring that the right voices are listening to each story, and have the power to act if a verbal or physical sexual attack has taken place, is quite another.

Qaderi sits in on every internal sexual harassment hearing, or appoints a member of her committee who does. Instances, while rare, do occur.

“[Recently], we had a complaint about harassment in one of our branches,” she says. “Our legal branch investigated and it was decided it was not proven that there was an instance of harassment. Nonetheless, the person involved was moved from one branch to another.”

Sometimes, there is no avoiding trouble.

In 2017, Habib Bank made Janjua a regional operations chief in charge of Multan, a major economic and agricultural hub in Punjab province. One day, armed bandits targeted a branch in Multan city.

The challenge she faced was “to deal with the situation, remain calm and focused, handle difficult people and display crisis management skills.” She emerged intact – but attacks by bandits, called ‘dacoities’ in Pakistan, are commonplace.

Better board representation is another challenge. It’s an issue everywhere, but even South Asia’s more progressive lenders are lagging on this front.

Take the banks mentioned in this story. Only two of the nine directors at Sri Lanka’s NDB are women. At India’s Kotak Mahindra Bank, it’s one in 10, and at State Bank of India, the country’s most inclusive financial institution, it’s a pitiable one in 13.

The same is true of Commercial Bank of Ceylon, where a single female director sits alongside 12 male peers. Walgama at CBC describes female representation at board level in the country as “pretty dismal. The glass ceiling seems harder to crack at this level and women, though qualified, continue to be overlooked and fenced out in this arena. So the fight goes on.”

A (male) Indian banker adds: “If you put more women into a boardroom, it can defuse the macho dynamic. You get less grandstanding – less jumping over people in order to get ahead – and more listening.”

But it will be a long slog. “It is not as if anyone is preventing women or not encouraging them to be on boards,” Ekambaram says. “But... if you want X% of women representation at executive positions, you need three times that number in middle management.”

Her advice to other women keen to build a career in banking? Ekambaram says women have to be “more confident”, willing to get out of their comfort zone and take risks.

“When Uday Kotak asked me to move into retail banking in 2014, I could have fallen flat on my face,” she says. “But I was willing to take the risk. Life is full of challenges. If you fall down, that’s okay, so long as you get back on the horse.”

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