A Boardroom Win For Women
Fortune India|November 2021
Regulations have ensured board seats for women, but that’s a battle just half won
V. Keshavdev

IN 2000, Raghunath Anant Mashelkar, in his inaugural speech at the Indian Science Congress, dwelt upon the need for a woman-centric society. “Can the India of the next millennium afford to stand on only one of its legs?” Talking about women empowerment at the annual congregation of scientific luminaries might have sounded odd, but for Mashelkar, the connection was personal, since his mother had not let him succumb to socio-economic challenges while he was growing up in the coastal state of Goa.

Today, two decades later, Mashelkar, a director with Reliance Industries, can take heart from the fact that women are making their presence felt on company boards, traditionally considered an all-men’s club. “It began as a compliance exercise, but eventually boards are realising that women directors, indeed, bring value to the table,” says the 78-year-old, who also chairs the conglomerate’s new energy council.

He is not off the mark. The number of women directors on India Inc. boards has gone up nearly eight-fold since the Companies Act 2013 made it mandatory for listed companies to have at least one woman director (See Here We Are). Only two companies in the Nifty 50 pack, NTPC and BPCL, have fallen short of the mandate — the state-owned heavyweights do not have any woman on their boards. As per the Act, every listed and unlisted public company having paid-up share capital of ₹100 crore or turnover in excess of ₹300 crore has to appoint at least one woman director, either in an executive or a non-executive role. Besides, on recommendations of the Kotak Committee on Corporate Governance, in 2019, an amendment was made in the SEBI (LODR) Regulations, 2015, making it mandatory for top 500 and next 500 listed entities, based on market capitalisation, to have at least one independent woman director by April 2019 and April 2020, respectively.

Though the numbers are still not substantial, Indra Nooyi, former CEO of Pepsico, says it’s a good beginning. “What India is doing now is to get that critical mass into companies, into boardrooms, into organisations. One of the things we discovered was that before the mandate, search firms dismissed women when the list was produced. Now that there is a mandate, people are saying wow, there is an awful lot of qualified women I could pick from!”

Ashu Suyash, who recently stepped down as CEO of Crisil to start her own venture, agrees. “We have moved away from tokenism. You can’t just put anybody. If you do, either the person or the organisation will have a problem, because now you have to publish skill metrics as well.”

However, Pranav Haldea, Managing Director of Prime Database, believes that more than meeting the criteria from a gender diversity perspective, diversity in thoughts is what should matter for companies. “The idea is that having people from different backgrounds would bring in diversity of opinions.”

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