When Usha Ananthasubramanian, MD and CEO of Allahabad Bank, was elected the chairperson of the Indian Banks’ Association (IBA) last January, Indian women bankers moved a step further to the country’s top banking position- that of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) Governor. IBA is an association of banks and financial institutions of the country and Ananthasubramanian is the first woman chairperson of the association.
It’s highly possible for a woman to become the RBI governor in the next few years and share the global podium with the likes of Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund. After all, India has always kept its faith on women’s wisdom.
If one traces back the history of the Indian banking a little deeper one would find that its women’s journey to the top banking slot began in 1996 when Tarjani Vakil became the chairperson of the Exim Bank, perhaps the first of her kind.
But it had remained largely a one-off incident. Things changed at the turn of the millennium. Ranjana Kumar was appointed as the chairperson and managing director of Indian Bank in 2000 – the first women to hold the top post of a public sector commercial bank. Saddled with huge losses and with a negative capital adequacy ratio the Indian bank was considered one of the weakest public sector banks when Kumar took over. She was given the task to bring back the bank to health. Kumar stewarded one of the most remarkable turnarounds in the history of banking in India. In two years, she achieved the targets set under the restructuring plan, including the reduction of non-performing assets.
Ranjana Kumar’s exemplary performance not only did her good but also helped shatter the glass ceiling for a host of women bankers who were waiting on the sidelines. A number of women bankers took charge of both public sector and private sector banks in the years to follow. Chanda Kochhar, MD and CEO, ICICI Bank; Shikha Sharma, MD and CEO, Axis Bank; Naina Lal Kidwai, Country Head, HSBC; Kaku Nakhate, President and Country Head (India), Bank of America Merrill Lynch; Vijayalakshmi Iyer, CMD, Bank of India; Archana Bhargava, CMD, United Bank of India; and Shubhalakshmi Panse, CMD, Allahabad Bank, all followed in Ranjana Kumar’s footsteps. At the RBI, Shyamala Gopinath, K.J. Udeshi and Usha Thorat have all been deputy governors.
The biggest challenge to Indian women bankers or the biggest achievement came when Arundhati Bhattacharya was appointed the chairperson of the country’s largest bank, State Bank of India (SBI) in 2013. When she took charge of the bank, profits were sliding, bad loans were climbing, the economic climate had deteriorated and the private sector was poaching its clients. And if macro economic fundamentals, especially, demand for bank credit, have not changed significantly, the profit chart of SBI has remained stable. Of course, as for most other public sector banks the non-performing assets of SBI too have increased sharply in recent years.
The biggest achievement of Arundhati Bhattacharya’s related to updating and modernising the bank’s technological domain and emphasising recovery to give the bank a new-age make over. So much so, the SBI chief Arundhati Bhattacharya and the ICICI Bank head Chanda Kochhar were placed among the world’s top 100 most powerful women by Forbes’. Biocon founder Kiran Mazumdar Shaw and HT Media’s Shobhana Bhatia were two other women from India included in that list.
The circle is now completed after the election of Usha Ananthasubramanian as the chairperson of the Indian Banks’ Association. Indian women bankers have now just one peak to climb – the governorship of the RBI.
This is impressive. In fact, although gender imbalances continue to prevail in corporate boardrooms across the world, the situation is somewhat better in India. If the number of women CEOs that Indian companies have is any indication, Indian women are surely better placed. India has nearly four times as many women CEOs compared to the US. According to a survey by international executive research firm, EMA Partners International in 2015, about 11% of Indian companies have women CEOs while in the case of Fortune 500 list from the US, the women CEOs account for just about 3% of the total consideration set. The financial services sector led the list in India. It was found that in India, more than half the women CEOs hail from the banking and financial services sector, which accounted for 54%
That’s about toppers, but average woman bankers too seem to have done exceptionally well of late. And why not! Banking comes naturally to women as they are more conservative, more structured, more careful about money, good leaders and better team players, qualities good bankers need to succeed, financial analysts would argue. And that what probably works in favour of woman bankers is that they are multi-taskers, team players, very flexible and able to handle all kinds of situations with equanimity. Another important thing is that most of the banks, the private sector banks particularly, of late have taken special efforts to encourage woman employees.
Look at the statistics: the number of Indian woman bankers has increased 54% in last five years from 1.87 lakhs in 2010-11 to 2.87 lakhs in 2015-16. In fact, the figure of woman bankers would look even more impressive when compared with that of their male counterpart. The number of male bankers increased just 17.4% from 8.64 lakhs in 2010-11to 10.14 lakhs in 2015-16.
Understandably, the gap is still huge but with sharper rise in the number of woman bankers it is shrinking fast. In fact, the share of women in total bank employees has increased by more than four percentage points from 17.8% to 22.1% during this period. That is, there are 22.1 woman bankers in every 100 bankers now compared to 17.8 in 2010-11. Or, there is one woman banker for every 3.5 male bankers in 2015-16 against 4.5 in 2010-11.
When it comes to officer’s jobs with greater responsibilities and more power, woman bankers seem to have left behind their male counterparts by yards. Between 2010-11 and 2015-16 the number of woman officers in India’s commercial banks increased by a massive 143.6% compared to 64% increase in male officers. The share of women in the total pool of bank officers went up by about seven percentage points from about 14.5% in 2010-11 to 21.5%in 2015-16. The share of male officers during the same period has gone down from 85.5% to 78.5%.
The rise of a number of women to the top banking jobs or the sharp increase in the number of woman bankers in the country in general, may look somewhat paradoxical, especially against the prevalence of strong gender discrimination in the country. Despite constraints, Indian women have often reached the top in a lot of other fields too, be it in sports, education, or politics.