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June 17, 2014

The Way To The Top

Text by Chanda Kochhar. Chanda Kochhar is the Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of ICICI Bank Limited, and is widely recognised for her role in shaping the retail banking sector in India and for her leadership of the ICICI Group, as well as her contributions to various forums in India and globally. She was conferred with the Padma Bhushan, in 2011.

Although women are occupying senior positions in a range of industries, the challenge of under-representation at the top still prevails. Bankable head, Chanda Kochhar gives a CEO’s perspective on gender diversity in the workplace

India has made a great deal of progress in the area of representation of women in leadership in many fields. Over the last decade, we have seen women in leadership roles in the civil service, in diplomacy, in regulatory bodies, in public sector companies and in private sector companies. In the corporate sector, we have seen women take up leadership positions in a range of industries, from banking to information technology. This is the culmination of a social process, which saw women starting to take up careers of this nature about 30 years ago. It takes time to build a career and reach the top, and the result of this natural progression has become visible in recent years. We have also seen examples of women managing the business in family-run companies.

However, we still have a challenge of under-representation of women in the corporate sector, particularly in senior positions. This is attributable to two reasons. The first is underrepresentation at the entry level itself, with only about 20 women for every 100 qualified job applicants.

The reasons for this need to be analysed. For example, it is seen that the majority of students entering business schools are engineers. Since fewer girls take up engineering, this means that they are underrepresented in business schools and hence in the pool of candidates that companies recruit from. The second reason is that many women drop out of the workforce after a few years, particularly as they start families and feel that they cannot manage responsibilities at home as well as the demands of a career.

“How did you do it? How do you manage both?” are questions I am often asked, as a woman, wife and mother, who is the CEO of India’s largest private sector bank. “How does ICICI have so many women in leadership roles?” is the other question I get with unfailing regularity.

To answer the first question – to put it simply, I did it by always believing I could. I always wanted a full life, with a great career and a great family. I never thought of having to choose between them. And I was prepared to work hard to make both happen. I feel that every young woman should free herself from the inhibition that one cannot have a successful career as well as a happy and fulfilling family life. It may not come easily – but then nothing good in life ever does! It takes hard work, focused time management, multi-tasking and continuous prioritisation. But it can be done, as long as one does not have a mental barrier that makes one believe that it is impossible to achieve. Two things helped me realise my dreams. First, I have a wonderful family, which has always supported me and cheered me on as I have progressed in my career. And second, I work for a wonderful organisation which gave me a series of opportunities to grow as a professional and a leader.

That brings us to the second question – how does ICICI do it? ICICI does it by being free of biases, and being a true equal opportunity organisation. It recruits women managers and gives them the same opportunities and responsibilities as men. Thereafter, everyone is judged on the basis of their performance and potential, and selected for greater opportunities and roles. Merit and leadership qualities are the only factors relevant to building a career at ICICI. The bank started this process earlier than other organisations in India and soon had its own women role models – who in turn inspired young women professionals to choose ICICI as the organisation they wanted to work for, creating a virtuous cycle.

In recent years, gender diversity in the corporate sector has become a hot topic. My view is that companies should not see this as some sort of “social need” or “good to have”, or just a “nice talking point”. I see diversity as essential to success in business. First of all, women are 50 per cent of the population. So by not having participation of women, an organisation loses out on 50 per cent of the talent pool in the country. Secondly, diversity brings varied views, skills and ways of thinking and working to the table. It significantly enhances an organisation’s ability to be creative, to handle challenges and to succeed in a world that is both diverse and changing rapidly.

Companies can achieve gender diversity by broad-basing recruitment with a specific focus on identifying qualified women candidates, by making the workplace friendly and accepting to women and by giving women employees opportunities to grow.

Companies should also be sensitive to women’s needs at particular stages of their lives. For instance, liberal maternity and childcare leave policies could go a long way in helping women at a time when they feel that they would have to choose between being a mother and having a career. Measures to enhance security of women at the workplace and outside are critical. There are other occasions as well when a sensitive and common sense approach can go a long way. Several years ago, when I was running our retail business, we wanted to transfer one of our women managers from one region to another. She requested not to be transferred that year because her child was in his final year of high school. We agreed and also ensured that we did not hold this against her when the next opportunity became available. I would like to add that often I see similar situations even with men in the organisation, and we are sensitive to their needs as well. My advice to young women is the same as that to young men in the corporate world – work hard and take up every challenge as an opportunity to learn and grow. Only then will you acquire the leadership capabilities that can propel you to the top. I personally believe nothing can stop a woman who believes in herself and is prepared to work hard to realise her dreams. I am sure that as more and more women begin to believe this, and more and more organisations recognise the value of diversity, in some years the world will no longer notice the gender of a CEO.

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