Andrew Buncombe: What’s the big deal, Barack Obama? India has plenty of top women bankers

We are our own glass ceilings and see glass ceilings that don’t exist

It was nothing less than a breakthrough, everyone agreed, when it emerged this week that Barack Obama was going to nominate Janet Yellen to head the US Federal Reserve. For the first time in its history, the US central bank was going to be headed by a woman.

There was a lot less fuss in India when it was announced that Arundhati Bhattacharya was to become the first woman to chair the State Bank of India (SBI), albeit not the central bank, but still the biggest and oldest bank in the subcontinent.

It was not that people did not wish the 57-year banker well, or recognise her achievement in heading a state-owned institution that dates back to 1806, has 15,000 branches spread across India and assets totalling $501bn (£314bn).

Rather, it was more likely the fact that Ms Bhattacharya was joining a group of other women who already head both government-owned and private banks in India.

A report in the Mint newspaper reported that Ms Bhattacharya, a 36-year veteran of the SBI, was following in the steps of Chanda Kochhar, the chief executive of ICICI bank; Vijayalakshmi R Iyer, chief managing director of the Bank of India; and Shikha Sharma, managing director and chief executive of the Axis Bank. Then there is Naina Lal Kidwai, head of HSBC India; Shubhalakshmi Panse, chairwoman and managing director of the Allahabad Bank; Archana Bhargava, chief managing director of the United Bank of India; Kalpana Morparia, chief executive of JPMorgan India; and Meera Sanyal, former chairwoman of RBS India.

India is not known as a country where the rights of women are celebrated, or where girls are always  encouraged to go to school.

Quite the opposite. More recently, the world has known India by headlines about gang-rapes and murder, honour killings and female foeticide.

Why then should India’s the financial services sector be so different, so unique?

Kalpana Morparia, who in 2008 was named as one of the 50 most powerful women in international business by Fortune magazine and who began her career in banking in 1975, said she believed it was one of the few areas in India to be gender-neutral and that as a result women could prosper.

Yet she said both financial services, and the corporate world in general, could do more by promoting role models for younger women. She said it was important to watch for lingering discrimination creeping in on selection and promotion boards.

She also said it was vital that women did not assume that their gender would hold them back. “Don’t let gender be a limiting factor for you,” she said, asked what advice she might pass on to a young woman seeking to follow her path. “We don’t need to lean in, but we do need to be ourselves.”

Meera Sanyal, the former head of RBS India, said that having spoken to female colleagues all agreed that supportive bosses (many of whom were male) and supportive in-laws (who helped with childcare) had been a factor in their careers.

Yet also crucial was an equal opportunity and merit-based environment where being a woman was neither an “advantage nor a disadvantage”. The 51-year-old, who  unsuccessfully contested a parliamentary seat in Mumbai in the 2009 election, said companies could yet do more to encourage women by offering flexible working hours.

“Flexible policies that give employees the opportunity to work in their own time and space when they need to would help greatly,” she said. Many of the women who first rose to success in Indian banks did so in  investment banking. Naina Lal Kidwai of HSBC India, who also serves as the current head of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, said this was an environment where success was very much based on results.

“In investment banking, you rise or fall depending on whether you can deliver,” said Ms Kidwai, who started her career with the Indian bank ANZ Grindlays, unlike some areas of corporate life in the country such as manufacturing where companies may be family-owned and dominated by ideas of patriarchy. If a son was available, the business would invariably passed down to him, rather than a daughter.

But in banking, the sheer number of women joining the industry has changed the dynamics. Ms Kidwai estimated that between 40 and 50 per cent of all new employees in the banking sector were now women.

Asked what factors may still be holding people back, she said she told women: “I often say that we are our own glass ceilings and we see ceilings that don’t exist.” She added: “To the men I say, ‘watch out,’ ”

Hosting a dinner party is enough to drive you crazy

Nice to have friends over for dinner. But frankly, quite a drag getting everything ready.

Drive to fish shop. Shut. Drive to second fish shop. Drive to vegetable shop. Drive to fruit shop. Drive to wine shop. Drive to beer shop. Drive to shop that sells ice cream.

For those with days to spare, a shopping routine with such variety might seem like a joy. But when you’re pushed for time it’s a drag.

Give me a supermarket.

So the news this week, that Wal-Mart is shelving plans to open full retail stores as it parts ways with its Indian partner of six years, the Bharti Group, was a little disappointing.

While the Indian government has relaxed regulations that means foreign retail firms can have a 51 per cent stake in Indian operations, there is still widespread concerns among international companies about sourcing stipulations and a general lack of clarity.

There is also concern about the often sweeping powers of India’s state governments.

And it seems Tesco is not rushing to leap in, despite encouragement from the Indian government. “We are excited about the India opportunity and await policy clarity before we can take further decisions on the matter,” the company said in a statement.

So for now at least, accept the  chaotic shopping. Or give up on the dinner parties.

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