Here's a list list of inspiring and successful stories of women in Indian banking sector

influential women in banking

As news comes in of a woman being appointed to head the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) for the first time in its 226-year history, we in India can proudly say, “What’s new?” For many years, women have played a pivotal role in India’s financial sector – primarily in banking, but also in other financial branches.

So much so that during Arundhati Bhattacharya’s stint at the helm of affairs at India’s biggest commercial bank, the State Bank of India (SBI), between October 7, 2013 and October 6, 2017, women controlled more than 50% of India’s banking business; the share would be even greater if the broader financial spectrum is considered. This is because there was – and still is – highly qualified women in the top echelons at various banks and finance companies. A cursory scan of the list will confirm this.

women in business

Bhattacharya’s tenure also coincided very briefly with that of Archana Bhargava as the chief of another PSU bank, United Bank of India. Meanwhile, in the investment banking sector, there were:

  • Manisha Girotra, India head of Moelis & Co (earlier, she headed UBS India till 2012);
  • Kaku Nakhate, head of BoA Merrill Lynch;
  • Kalpana Morparia, MD and CEO of JP Morgan; and
  • Vedika Bhandarkar, head of Investment Banking at Credit Suisse India (July 2010 to February 2015).

Similarly, women have shone in other financial services companies, some of them being:

  • Alice Vaidyan, CMD, General Insurance Corporation;
  • Sunita Sharma, CEO, LIC Housing Finance, India’s second largest housing finance company (her tenure ended this April);
  • Sarojini Dikhale, CEO, LIC Nomura Mutual Fund; and
  • Ashu Suyash, CEO, CRISIL.

It would perhaps be not too wrong to say there are few countries where women dominate the financial sector as much as in India. The question is: why is this so? What is it that makes Indian women run banks so efficiently?

Positive work milieu

One of the primary reasons for Indian women occupying high positions in banks are the factors that have brought academically qualified Indian women and the banking sector together. Also, the culture of diversity among staffers that Indian banks have promoted since very early days on the other.

Data culled from a 2011 study by Catalyst, a New York-based organisation promoting inclusive workplaces for women, shows that women accounted for almost 47% of undergraduate students enrolled in Indian colleges that year, and about 41% of PhD students. Naturally, they would want to work for a living. It is here that banks, with their positive HR culture and an array of job choices, come in.

From the outset, Indian banks have embraced women, who have responded equally enthusiastically. Indeed, it is felt that bank jobs suit them more than many other better-paying options – say, as an HR manager at a factory. This was underscored in a 2015 study on women employees in the banking sector by the International Journal of Management and Development Studies (IJMDS), which said the “large number of working alternatives in banking sectors” made bank jobs appealing to women in a big way.

In the emergence of a new economic pattern, increasing opportunities for education, rising standards of living, and increased modernisation, women from the middle and upper-class families have also started stepping out of their traditional role of the homemaker to join the workforce, especially in the banking sector, the study said. It also noted that job satisfaction, while depending on variables such as age, marital status, designation, experience, and income, was on the whole ‘positive’.

An Indian reality 

Another factor behind women’s ability to handle the pressures of a high-profile job (such as that of a bank CEO) would perhaps be the social conditioning instilled in them by the Indian way of life: if you are a woman, it does not matter if you go out to work; you’re still a mother, a wife, a daughter – responsible for all the duties the respective roles entail – over and above that of your professional job profile.

It may seem regressive to many, but that’s the way it is. As a result, Indian women learn to adapt and evolve as team players who can multitask, be flexible, and manage conflicting situations.

This is true for the Indian diaspora as well, highlighted by no less a person than PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, who is fond of narrating how, on the night she was made the company president, her mother sent her out to fetch milk the moment she stepped out of the car. The reason for not sending her husband who was sleeping: he was tired.

Cut to India, and an almost identical story is narrated by Manisha Girotra of Moelis & Co, who formerly headed investment bank UBS in the country. On one occasion when she reached home jetlagged “after cracking an $18-20 billion deal”, her mother made her make puppets for her daughter’s school project from 3 to 7 in the morning, “arguing that I simply had to do it; it was my job”. When she asked why her husband (investment banker Sanjay Agarwal) did not help the child out, Girotra was told; “Sanjay can’t do all this. Poor guy, he’s also tired.”

How managing conflicting situations come naturally to women was explained in a 2013 interview by the then Allahabad Bank chairman Shubhalakshmi Panse, where she narrated how, in an earlier stint as the executive director of Vijaya Bank, she made a politically connected woman square off dues of about Rs. 7 crore. In Panse’s words, they had a candid woman-to-woman conversation where she dwelt on how the stigma of unpaid dues would hurt the woman’s minor son and his future. “The woman saw sense in my argument, paid us off, and today we’re friends,” Panse was quoted as saying. “Being a woman has its advantages.”

Woman’s instinct

When it comes to investment and finance, multiple studies have shown that women across the world, irrespective of their nationality or cultural background, tend to be cautious and risk-averse. This approach may have a variety of reasons – from low confidence due to societal influences to having less investible cash than their male counterparts. But ultimately what it boils down to is this: when a woman takes on a job in the banking sector, she’s already conditioned to be calm and collected in high-pressure situations, and is prudent in her investment decisions.

In his blog on banking for the UK’s Guardian newspaper, Dutch journalist-author Joris Luyendijk noted how after the 2008 meltdown women were increasingly being seen in the West as “better stewards of the financial sector”. “Earlier,” he wrote, “women were cast as too emotional and fundamentally unserious, and hence not suited for bearing heavy responsibility in society. After the crisis, it is now male traders and bankers who are portrayed in that light.”

In contrast, a far less developed India had recognised women power in the banking sector much earlier. ICICI Bank, in fact, took a decisive step in 2009 to appoint Chanda Kochhar as its CEO and managing director to counter the effects of the meltdown, even before the West had started wondering whether women made “better stewards”. This also made Kochhar India’s first woman bank head.

Some years later, The Globe and Mail newspaper of Canada spoke highly of “the quiet confidence that is her trademark” as Kochhar fought fears that ICICI had significant exposure to ailing US banks. “Ms Kochhar ordered branches across India to stay open as long as customers wanted their money, made sure ATMs were constantly restocked and coached edgy branch managers late into the night,” the paper said, in an obvious nod to her composure under pressure.

In a similar show of confidence, when British Standard Chartered decided to take on rising bad loans in India in 2015, they appointed ICICI Bank’s executive director Zarine Daruwala to head the Indian operations, making her Stanchart’s first woman CEO in India. Her brief was to set right the bank’s ailing corporate portfolio. Interestingly, Daruwala had been handpicked by Kochhar at ICICI to help her tackle the post-meltdown blues.

Woman’s tenacity

Arundhati Bhattacharya may not have been the first woman to head a bank in India, even among PSU banks, but in 2016 she was named the 25th most important woman in the world by Forbes magazine. By then she had already served 39 years at SBI, having joined the bank in September 1977. However, given her long tenure at SBI and intimate knowledge of its inner workings, her term was extended by a year so she could supervise the merger of the five associate banks of SBI and Bharatiya Mahila Bank. That one move also propelled SBI to being among the top 50 banks in the world in terms of assets.

Tenacity is another aspect of women’s nature that makes them click in the banking sector and enables so many of them rise to the top. Bhattacharya served SBI for40 years, Panse put in 37 years in banking before she was appointed Allahabad Bank chief, Girotra was with UBS for 20 years before she took up her current job at Moelis; others have put in equally long years at the same bank. As a Harvard Business Review study, titled ‘How Female CEOs Actually Get to the Top’, concludes from its data, the consistent theme is that “steady focus wins the day”.

Interestingly, not all women bank CEOs came from a finance background: Bhattacharya studied English literature, while Panse was into stem cell research. But they took their careers seriously. Panse, for instance, pursued a business management course in the evenings, going on to earn a Master’s degree in management and finance in India, following it up with an MBA from Drexel University in Philadelphia. “My commitment has always been 200 per cent,” she says.

This is something the Harvard study noted too: perseverance was a common trait among all the American CEOs it surveyed. “There’s something inspiring for young women in the stories of these female CEOs: the notion that regardless of background, you can commit to a company, work hard, prove yourself in multiple roles, and ultimately ascend to top leadership,” it observed.

Clearly, what is true of the US is true for women CEOs of Indian banks as well.