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Banking still remains an old boy's club- An independent research report by LeadHers

Lack of women in the management role in banking is causing a serious damage to future of banking and finance

There has been growing recognition in recent years of the lack of female representation at senior levels in the banking industry. On the face of it, the Indian BFSI sector has done reasonably well in this regard, with women such as Usha Sangwan (MD & CEO of LIC), Arundhati Bhattacharya (former CEO of SBI), Madhabi Puri Buch(Chairperson of SEBI), A. Manimekhalai, (CEO and MD of Union Bank) having secured the top job in their respective organisations. It would be laudable if these successes pointed to an institutional reality where women in BFSI do not suffer discrimination or hidden bias. However, the number of grievances that I chance upon in my work as the founder of LeadHers, a mentoring and leadership community aimed at professional women, points to a very different reality. While female CEOs in India BFSI showcase what is possible, my interactions suggest that there remains a huge gulf between the possible and the plausible.

To understand this gulf better, we ran an independent survey for professionals in the BFSI sector of India, gender agnostic, age group 25-52 years. The survey excluded people working in the captives of multinational banks in India. The survey was distributed within the LeadHers community and our immediate networks. In all we collected 110 qualifying responses, from all over India. The results are shown below. The percentage figures refer to the percentage of respondents who cited that cause as contributing to the issue (note: respondents could select multiple reasons).

The reasons cited here feature the usual suspects though in each case, the surface statistic needs to be interpreted in the light of subjective context that emerged from follow on discussions, after the survey.

Gender pay gap cited by 38% of women should be understood as the poorer career and salary mobility available to women after maternity. This leads to a vicious cycle where the woman’s career is rationally easier to deprioritise compared to their spouse’s; consequently women find themselves under direct and indirect pressure to accept a less demanding career trajectory that offers more bandwidth for them to administer to their domestic responsibilities. Needless to say their spouses do not.

A lack of dependable child care — cited by 50% of respondents is the other side of this coin. In the West, in countries like Iceland, access to high quality, highly trained and professionally regulated child care means that women have an option to return to work relatively earlier. For example, I was able to return to work in the UK by enrolling my son in daycare, when he was just 11 months old. In India, while child care is available, the sector is largely unregulated, quality is uncertain and women are typically expected to stay close to the care provider to monitor them. Naturally, this impacts their career options.

Aggressive sales targets (cited by 47% of the respondents) — on the face of it sounds unrelated to gender representation or career progression but turns out to be deeply relevant. Not so long ago, a leaked video of a Regional Manager of HDFC Bank in Kolkata went viral. The video featured a sales manager berating his mostly male team (bar 2 women) in the foulest language possible for their failure to meet their numbers. To be clear, the conduct featured in the video is condemnable, no matter the gender of the audience but it speaks to an underlying malaise that is very pertinent to the issue. As is the case in any industry, sales is a very critical function in BFSI and performance in sales roles correlates disproportionately with long term career growth. However, the sales culture in many Indian BFSI organisations is deeply hostile and disrespectful, as evinced in the video above. Such a culture unsurprisingly discourages many women from a career in sales, in turn leaving them with a long term handicap when it comes to landing executive leadership roles later in their career.

Lack of gender sensitisation — cited by 41% of respondents — is closely related. While a hostile culture is certainly part of it, the lack of sensitisation also manifests in other ways. For example, one highly qualified respondent mentioned losing out on a job opportunity with a leading investment bank because the interviewer unilaterally decided that the challenging hours associated with the role were not suitable for a woman. Another woman mentioned being asked to accept a lower pay rise, not because she had underperformed but because her male colleague was the solitary breadwinner and was seen as more deserving for that reason. In 1973, the filmmaker and theorist Laura Mulvey coined the term “the male gaze” to describe a movie making culture that approached all creative decision-making in a movie purely from the point of view of a hetero-normative male. The culture was the outcome of a system in which the majority of the key roles — studio bosses, directors, photographers — were controlled by men. Somewhat analogously, the gatekeepers and standard setters in BFSI are primarily men. Some time consciously, often implicitly, the standards they apply when designing roles, incentives or systems, are male centric in their logic.

In such a system, women occupy the roles that they do not so much as a native as a first generation immigrant with a sense of belongingness that is much more tentative compared to their male counterparts. A lack of confidence (cited by 30% of respondents) is a predictable outcome of such a reality. While of course there are many women who project an aura of confidence (more power to them!), the point is that at an ecological level, the system is more geared towards undermining that confidence than towards supporting it. This is also reflected in the 32% of respondents that mentioned a lack of support in developing their leadership potential. This could be interpreted as a lack of access to leadership training courses for example but the issue runs deeper. Many organisations actually do a fair job of striving for equal participation of women in their leadership nurturing programmes. The problem is with things like mentorship (women reported feeling limited in their choice of high quality mentors) or participation in informal growth opportunities (the infamous old boys club).

To conclude, most organisations today are a lot more mindful towards wanting to improve gender balance in their ranks. While real progress has been made, the survey shows much more needs to be done.

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