Life is not a template and neither is mine. Like several who have worked as journalists, I am a generalist in my over two decade experience across print, global news wires and dotcom firms. But there has been one underlying theme in each phase; life gave me the chance to observe and tell a story -- from early days tracking a securities scam to terror attacks and some of India's most significant court trials. Besides writing, I have jumped fences to become an entrepreneur, as an investment advisor -- and also taught the finer aspects of business journalism to young minds. At Forbes India, I also keep an eye on some of its proprietary specials like the Rich list, GenNext and Celebrity lists. An alumnus of Xavier Institute of Communications and H.R College of Commerce and Economics in Mumbai, I have worked for organisations such as Agence France-Presse, Business Standard, The Financial Express and The Times of India prior to this.
[L-R] Zia Mody, founder and senior partner, AZB & Partners; Chanda Kochhar, managing director and chief executive officer, ICICI Bank; Latha Venkatesh, executive editor at CNBC-TV18; Ronnie Screwvala, entrepreneur co-founder of UpGrad; Naina Lal Kidwai, chairman, Max Financial Services and former chairman, HSBC India, and Dilip Piramal, chairman, VIP Industries (Image: Mexy Xavier)
The Forbes India W-Power Trailblazers 2017 event on Wednesday evening kicked off with a panel discussion on “Gender Parity: What India needs ?” where eminent personalities such as legal consultant Zia Mody, founder and senior partner AZB & Partners, Naina Lal Kidwai, chairman of Max Financial Services, Chanda Kochhar, managing director and CEO of ICICI Bank, Ronnie Screwvala, entrepreneur and founder of UpGrad, and Dilip Piramal, chairman of VIP Industries, moderated by CNBC TV18’s executive editor Latha Venkatesh.
In the changing corporate dynamics, India has started to address the issue of improving upon gender parity within the system, but experts said that more needs to be done.
Kochhar of ICICI Bank discussed steps the bank had taken in recent years towards improving gender parity. ICICI Bank in 2016 announced a work-from-home programme for women employees, which could extend to one year. “Steps like this had helped… we gave comfort to women that it is gender neutral and meritocracy based.”
She expanded on this point saying that corporates will also need to recognise an issue such as physical safety and security of their women employees and have mobile apps to help them with the same. “If there are late sales meetings, then they need to have someone accompany them at these,” she told a packed audience at Four Seasons Hotel in Worli, Mumbai. “Women need to get it into their minds that they can achieve anything. There will be difficult periods of time, when women feel like giving up or sacrificing one part of their life for the other, but they must stay strong,” she added.
Kochhar spoke about the ICICI Foundation, which provides channels of sustainable livelihood through skill training for the underprivileged. “About 100,000 youth are helped [to develop a] skill each year – whether it be in sales, tractor repair, administrative jobs… about 44 percent of these are young girls. When I talk to them they say they seek to be trained so that they achieve employment,” Kochhar said.
Ronnie Screwvala said, in his experience as an entrepreneur, more startups of the future in India will be women-led and there would be less gender parity. “I feel more optimistic. Entrepreneurs will change the stereotype. If women are self-initiators, they work hard and succeed, this issue [gender parity] can be addressed. He also cited the example of the popular television show Masterchef, across the globe, which, according to reports, had inspired several women to look at becoming chefs as a career option.
“Younger people and companies are starting to spell out the culture of the organisation, they do not need to address or specifically spell out gender equality. The needle is moving to that direction.”
But banker Naina Lal Kidwai said more needed to be done. “Things are not where it should be. Women believe they have to work 150 percent and not just 100 percent of their male colleagues to be recognised equally,” she said. Kidwai spoke about cases she has heard about where women had walked into sales meetings to interact with prospective customers, but the clients were communicating only with their male counterparts. “Society is changing, but only slowly. Look at family-run businesses in India, for most it is ‘Mehra & Sons and not Mehra & Daughters,” Kidwai said.
Noted industrialist Dilip Piramal spoke about his personal experiences, where he has handed over the reins of his successful luggage business at VIP to his second daughter Radhika, who is now the managing director of the company. “I have always been gender neutral,” Piramal said, adding that he has left daily business decisions to his daughter and was confident that she would continue to deliver results and show strong growth. VIP is today India’s largest luggage maker, commanding a 52 percent market share in the Rs 2,600-crore organised luggage market.
Noted lawyer Zia Mody said India suffered from what the industry called a “leaky pipeline”, a specific phase in the timeline of the workforce when women dropped off and stopped working as professionals, due to a change in their personal lives, whether it be due to marriage or having children. “This is India’s worst problem,” she said.
Kidwai said women need not be too worried about not getting enough mentorship. “What gets you to be good leader is leadership… it is not about giving orders but carrying the team,” she said. India has to enter a phase where delivery of public goods, sanitation, micro solar, water, need to be provided to the rural population. These factors will help create more village-level entrepreneurs, particularly women.”
Venkatesh ended the panel discussion with the observation that Indian society will need to receive a greater push from the government, legal and cultural forces, to proactively push for gender parity. “It will not change on its own,” she said.