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Cracking the Glass Ceiling one Female Indian Banker at a time

January 29, 2010

One of the themes of this blog is gender equality: in politics, in business, in academia. It’s an issue that I first started thinking about in earnest when I spent a year on exchange in Japan when I was 21.

What shocked me most during my time in Japan was how restrictive the gender roles were. In the office where I did my work term, women were employed almost exclusively as secretaries and tea ladies. Outside of my office, women served as shop ladies, sales clerks, and servers. And this being Japan, it was possible to ignore their role as pin-up girls, hostesses, and escorts. Most of them though, stayed at home and took care of the children.

I had lovely Japanese female friends, but I remember being shocked that most of them wanted only to fall in love and get married. I felt like I was on a different planet.

But the longer I stayed, the more normal it seemed that women should stay at home while the men worked long hours and came home drunk. Japanese women seemed to have so few options– they were second class citizens in their own country. Seeing the effect of this culture on wome affected me deeply. I had grown up thinking that girls could do anything that boys could do. I honestly believed that for my generation, there would be no gender discrimination in the workplace.  My experience in Japan made me realize that it wasn’t quite so simple.

In the years since I left Japan, I have thought a lot about gender equality. The subject has become even more important to me since I became a mother– how to strike that work-life balance? How to compete in an academic job market where other candidates do not have family responsibilities? How to divide responsibilities with your partner? How does your social, professional, and local environment affect these relationships and your feelings about them?

So when I see a positive article about how women have broken through the glass ceiling in some places, I want to jump up and down with joy!

It turns out that there is a surprising number of top female bankers in India. They hold an amazing amount of clout in comparison to their female counterparts in the traditional finance capitals of New York and London. What is even more amazing is that India’s culture is very conservative: at most levels of society, women are still second class citizens. The exception is amongst the wealthy where women and men are equally well-educated. (Just remember that it was not so long ago that Amartya Sen wrote about the 100 million missing women, alleging that millions of female fetuses were being aborted, mostly in China and India.)

In New York and London, women remain scarce among top bankers despite decades of struggle to climb the corporate ladder. But in India’s relatively young financial industry, women not only are some of the top deal makers, they are often running the show.

HSBC, JPMorgan Chase, Royal Bank of Scotland, UBS and Fidelity International in India are run by women. So is the country’s second-biggest bank, Icici Bank, and its third-largest, Axis Bank. Women head investment banking operations at Kotak Mahindra and JPMorgan Chase and the equities division of Icici. Half of the deputy governors at the Reserve Bank of India are women. Full story.

So the question is why in India and not elsewhere?

… women in the industry, many of whom have also worked in London and New York, say India provided the right combination of supportive, mostly male, managers and a diverse work environment that did not require them to be “one of the boys” to succeed.

This “isn’t a golf-playing, beer-drinking homogeneous culture,” said Naina Lal Kidwai, group managing director and country head of HSBC in India and a former head of Morgan Stanley’s investment bank in India. Male bankers and managers run the gamut from devoutly religious to devoted family men to late-night socialites…

That means India is without an old Wall Street staple: Women who feel they must act like the stereotypical male banker to advance. There are no swaggering “masters of the universe” in this group. Top female managers regularly wear saris and talk openly about their children and husbands. That means India is without an old Wall Street staple: Women who feel they must act like the stereotypical male banker to advance. There are no swaggering “masters of the universe” in this group. Top female managers regularly wear saris and talk openly about their children and husbands…

Almost all of them are in their 40s and 50s, are from wealthy backgrounds, went to excellent schools in India and abroad, and graduated at the top of their classes before excelling at the bank they joined. So they often enjoy the same status as the men who were their competition and their banking clients.

Banking may be more of a meritocracy than other professions, women in the business say, because there is an easy way to keep score: Look at the bottom line.

The reporter, Heather Timmons, argues that there are a few key factors that really matter here:

1. Top men have diverse backgrounds

2. Banking is a meritocracy: easy to compare performance

3. Wealth and education

4. Affordable household help (nannies, maids) + Extended family help

The first point of note here goes back to my original observation about Japan: gender roles were very restrictive there. It was hard for women (and men) to defy the norm. In India, the range of “normal” is much broader– critically though, that range is extremely broad for men. That diversity of backgrounds, cultural and religious beliefs, combined with an extremely strong family culture produces a wide range of what is acceptable for male behaviour. It is then only a small stretch to extend that range of diversity to include women, especially women of a certain wealth and education.

I have always argued that we can’t achieve gender equality without changing the environment for men as well as women. When we have male leaders that want to work part time to take care of young children, and male colleagues who openly favour their family life over their professional ambitions, then there will be more room for women to join the top ranks of their fields. As it stands, there is an up-or-out culture for many professions, including my own in academia. When cast in those terms, women who want to have children are usually going to choose the out option.

Now if you consider the investment of skills and education that is lost when women permanently leave the workforce to have children, from a macro perspective, taxpayers should be doing everything they can to keep these women from leaving. It just does not make sense for the collective good to let educated women go because the work place cannot accommodate her needs for a few years. A career is 30-40 years long, and 3-5 years is not a long time to be flexible. If only that 3-5 year gap could be bridged in a comfortable way, I bet that many of these women would happily return to work.

Government and employer policies already exist to bridge this gap. Consider: Maternity and paternity leave that can be split as desired by the family. Or better yet, generous maternity AND paternity leave (6 months – 1 year). On-site daycare. Nanny-sharing subsidies. Cleaners that do your laundry, ironing, vacuuming, and heavy chores. Personal assistants (working in another country, but available to manage your diary online). All of these ideas are in the realm of the possible.

Sure, government policies have to set the baseline, but on top of that, the key to getting more women to the top of their profession seems to be flexibility– not only for women, but for men too.  When men break through the gender stereotypes that bind them to the workplace, then women will also have a better chance of cracking that glass ceiling.

Update March 29 2011: A Globe and Mail headline say that Top jobs remain out of reach for women in banking.

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