With the new Companies Act and the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi)'s corporate governance code mandating greater participation of women in company boardrooms, senior women professionals as well as young women from business families have started readying themselves. Recently, a group of 35-odd women, including chief financial officers, chartered accountants, human resource heads, social sector executives, educationists, lawyers and members of business families, went through a day-long board-readiness workshop, organised by accounting and consulting firm EY.
As the motley group was being briefed about the responsibilities, liabilities and risks attached with directorship positions, one of the participants, a senior human resources executive, sought to know whether similar workshops were held for men. "If not, why do women need to prove their preparedness for boards?" she asked, drawing applause from the entire group.
At the gathering, a suggestion endorsed by many was such workshops should be open to both men and women. The moot question, a participant said, was, "Are men ready to have women on boards?"
Senior marketing professional Sangeeta Talwar, who has 30 years of experience in several multinational and Indian companies and is an independent director in the boards of four firms, recalls being the only woman in the room at many board meetings. "Whether boards are ready for women or not is their problem, not mine," she says, nonchalantly. Her mantra for women aspiring for board positions: "Have confidence in your potential and stand up for your values."
Arun Duggal, chairman of Shriram Capital, head of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry's centre for corporate governance and a member on the boards of several companies, has a more empathic view of the churn in boardrooms. "There is a social change taking place in boardrooms," he says.
Duggal, who has mentored 40 women for board positions in the past year, adds currently, the representation of women on the boards of India companies is dismal, barely six per cent, and this is almost equally divided between members of promoter families and independent professionals.
Perhaps, in two-three years, once the value of gender diversity in boardrooms is established, such workshops will become redundant, he says.
According to a Sebi mandate, all listed companies have to have at least one woman director on their boards by October 1. According to estimates by indianboards.com, 830 woman directorship positions in NSE-listed companies have to be filled through the next four weeks. The Companies Act, 2013, stipulates at least one woman director for companies with revenue of Rs 300 crore and/or paid-up share capital of Rs 100 crore. The deadline to comply with this is April 1, 2015.
Even as corporate India gets used to gender diversity in boardrooms, it makes a lot of business sense for companies to encourage high-potential senior executives to join the boards of other firms. "It helps these executives broaden their perspectives and enhance their networks," says Geeta Mathur, chief financial officer at Helpage India, a non-profit organisation. Having come through a mentorship programme herself, Mathur has taken up board positions in three companies since January this year.
As global chief financial officer of NIIT Tech, Pratibha K Advani has, through the years, worked closely with board members. "For having a woman on the board, the criterion has to be nothing other than competence. Actually, I am against quota or reservations," she says.
Mentors say before accepting any board position, it is important to carry out due diligence of the company and know the promoters and senior management to establish a comfortable working relationship. It helps to talk to bankers, auditors and suppliers associated with the company to get a sense of its corporate governance track record. "Just don't join a board in a hurry," says Mathur.
Many young women from business families are also taking the opportunity to join boards seriously. Meenakshi Chaudhary from Kolkata-based Vikram Solar, a photo voltaic panel manufacturer, is keen to join her husband on the board. "Though the position comes to me as wife of the managing director, I want to train myself for the role. As a woman, I am very conscious of the risks and liabilities that come with the role," says Chaudhary, who has been involved in streamlining the operations and processes in the group.
For sisters Paridhi Minda and Palak Minda of auto components maker Minda Industries, attending a workshop for women directors is a step towards preparing themselves for the board. "We aspire for a board position, but don't want to join the board just on the basis of our surname," says Paridhi. Through the past five-seven years, the sisters have been working at the company in various capacities and across departments and this, Paridhi says, will bring about a broader perspective to the board.
"It will be difficult for any professional to match that," she adds.