Sucheta Dalal :Women directors as quota candidates
Sucheta Dalal

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Women directors as quota candidates  

July 4, 2000

To most women in business, the announcement from the Department of Company Affairs (DCA) came as a bolt from the blue. In a sudden burst of concern, the DCA in India proposed that 20 per cent of all corporate board directorships should be reserved for women. While investors and investor associations have fought long and hard battles for board representation on companies and stock exchanges, or even to be included in the scores of committees set up to review various regulations, the reservation for women was handed down without any serious lobbying attempt.

The reaction from women too has been sensibly muted. It is true that women are grossly under-represented at the senior most levels of management; in fact, they begin to get eliminated from the race at near about middle management level -- but reserved "quotas" are still not the answer. Fortunately, very few of the women are truly happy at being part of a women's quota. In fact, the DCA's proposal has only met with a thundering silence from the beneficiary class and the associations that represent them.

The existence of glass ceilings in the corporate sector has been extensively researched and documented and there is no need to reiterate the fact. Women are also, usually paid less then men for the same jobs and are grossly under-represented at the top of the corporate pyramid. But quotas in the boardroom cannot solve the problem. In fact, they may do more harm. In fact women executives in the organised sector probably need more help to get past middle management than later. Once through the first ten years, they ought to make it to the boardroom on their own steam and not through a quota.

Way back in 1984, when most of us were starting out in our respective careers, an MBA friend, fresh out of Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad who came from a progressive professional background, offered this revealing insight. "All our lives my parents brought us to believe that we were equal to the guys," she said, "but the campus recruitment process quickly taught us how wrong they were. Some of the best companies simply did not look at women, so you were not even in the race. Those who did interview women often grilled them about their seriousness in making a career rather than finding out if they were right for the job. The more crude ones bluntly asked us if we planned to work after marriage. Often the bias was so palpable that it simple did not matter what we answered, we were never selected. On the other hand, the guys were asked more intelligent questions and even the most mediocre ones in the class were simply picked up on the first day, by the better companies."

The grilling that women usually face about their marriage plans in all job interviews often borders on the ridiculous. Though relocation and resignations after marriage may be true of a large percentage of women, statistics may prove that men seeking quick career opportunities are as likely to quit their jobs within a couple of years to seek greener pastures. Yet, the latter is always more acceptable as a reason for quitting.

Once prepared for discrimination by campus recruitment, the next few years are usually no surprise. The ambitious women usually work twice as hard to make up the handicap of being usually left out of the chummy male bonding that takes place over liquor. Their repertoire of business skills includes enormous bladder control to prepare for field trips where ladies toilets are unheard or even the appropriate attitude to impudent junior colleagues (male, naturally) and lecherous senior ones. Things have changed considerably over the last 16 years, but the handicap is by no means eliminated.

Marriage and children usually worsen the situation. Some lucky ones have supportive home environments but most simply burn themselves out trying to be superwomen, particularly if the job requires working late hours and frequent travel.

Women could use a break at this stage. Hindustan Lever (HLL), is one of the companies that women MBAs used to accuse of being biased against the female gender. In an interview before leaving for a posting at Unilever Plc, I had asked former chairman Keki Dadiseth about the charge. He did not deny it, but said that HLL was changing. In fact he said, "...if HLL wants to work with the best people, it cannot ignore women."

More importantly, HLL was keen on doing it right. Said Dadiseth, "We don't want to pander to women by tokenism but want to become a natural company which recognises that at a certain time women will always want to spend time with their children." HLL's solution is to find "creative ways" to ensure that its women executives remain within the fold and can return to full time jobs without a loss of seniority.

The DCA's 20 per cent quota of board directorships is exactly what Dadiseth calls 'pandering' to women through 'tokenism'. And it is more than likely to defeat the most laudable objectives with which it has been suggested. What the corporate sector really needs is to be more "natural" and understanding, rather than force women into boardrooms through artificial reservations.

Successful women who have broken the glass ceiling, will hate to be seen as "quota" candidates. The quota itself is liable to be misused to promote undeserving candidates or to bring in people with little knowledge or understanding about business. Instead, sensitising organisations to treat women differently and encouraging flexi-timing and recognising the value of work done from home will go a long way towards helping women build long term careers in the corporate sector.

The government could also work on helping women turn entrepreneurs, again by sensitising bankers and working at eliminating the inherent bias against women's projects.

The business sector certainly does not require the creation of unhealthy quotas, which are liable to be misused.

-- Sucheta Dalal