Women on Top: Why India Loves ‘Banking’ on Its Epic Moms

From public sector to the private, middle management to senior, Indian banks are packed with women holding their own.

4 min read
Women on Top: Why India Loves ‘Banking’ on Its Epic Moms

Do men buy shares from Mars and women have a savings account on Venus?

The success of women in Indian banking is truly inspiring. Arundhati Bhattacharya (SBI), Chanda Kochhar (ICICI), Shikha Sharma (Axis Bank), Usha Ananthasubramanian (Punjab National Bank), Naina Lal Kidwai (HSBC), Kaku Nakhate (Bank of America Merrill Lynch) and Shubhalakshmi Panse (Allahabad Bank) are just some of the names to have broken into the C-suite.

ICICI Bank’s Chief Executive Officer designate Chanda Kochhar speaks during a news conference in Mumbai (Photo: Reuters)

From public sector to the private, middle management to senior, Indian banks are packed with women holding their own. In fact when it comes to gender diversity, the Indian banking sector’s score is at par with the US, and possibly – as some media reports seem to indicate – even better.

So what makes Indian women so successful at running banks? It seems to be a combination of them being natural team players, multi-tasking individuals, flexible managers and inherently good at managing disparate constituencies. What has also helped them flourish is that working at a bank does not pose the kind of challenge for a woman as let’s say, working on a shop-floor would, and as The Economic Times writes – banking as an industry has been consciously promoting diversity much before it became fashionable to do so in India.

Naina Lal Kidwai, HSBC country head for India, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Mumbai (Photo: Reuters)

Women also traditionally tend to be more careful with money. Legendary investor Warren Buffet may have jested that he was in no hurry to recover his wife’s credit card as the man who had stolen it was spending less than her, but this risk aversion (conservative in banker-speak) is something that separates the girls from the boys and one of The Unique Ways in Which Women Approach Finance says Brian Bloch of Investopedia and author of the paraphrase this piece begins with.

Male machismo may scoff at it but when you are managing balance sheets running into hundreds of crores of depositor funds, being prudent and cautious are definite virtues.

Shikha Sharma, Axis Bank Photo: Wikipedia

Indian women bankers also display traits identified with successful CEOs the world over: the ability to remain calm under pressure, intellectual breadth to analyse business models and numbers and an ability to see the larger picture. A high emotional quotient to manage vociferous trade unions and bureaucratic governmental interference is something Indian women – many being brought up in joint-families – are inherently more adept at.

Allahabad Bank CMD Shubhalakshmi Panse.

While traditionally mobility was a factor with many women managers, recruits today are much more open and accommodating when it comes to moving cities, as one is required to especially in the early stage of one’s career.

Indian women bankers also tend to be tenacious. They stick it out – many with the same bank — and work hard on changing the system from within. As a Harvard Business Review research paper titled How Female CEOs Actually Get to the Top found out, this ability to last the course is critical be it in India or the US: “The consistent theme in the data is that steady focus wins the day. The median long stint for these women CEOs is 23 years spent at a single company in one stretch before becoming the CEO.”

Kaku Nakhate, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, at the India Economic Summit 2011. Photo: Flickr

Indian banks have a sterling record when it comes to providing opportunities for women, compared to the US. Author and anthropologist Melissa Fisher who studied women who have broken into Wall Street over the last 50 years says, “on the top floor the glass ceiling remains, with women massively under-represented in senior positions. Not a single global bank is run by a woman.”

But a change is in the air as evident from a recent public conversation in May this year between two women thousands of powerful male CEOs look up to: Janet Yellen, Chairman, US Federal Reserve and Christine Lagarde, Head of the IMF. As Rana Foorohar of Time magazine writes: “Lagarde made a point she’s made before, which is that perhaps the financial crisis wouldn’t have happened if Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters.”

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Topics:  women bankers 

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