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Shyamal Majumdar: The 'golden skirts' debate

A knife of quotas at India Inc's throat might not help in achieving women's empowerment in boardrooms

Shyamal Majumdar  |  Mumbai 

Shyamal Majumdar
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No one can accuse the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi) of being unduly harsh on India Inc for its failure to comply with the norm that all listed companies must have at least one woman director each on their boards. The market regulator gave them more than a year's time and will be justified in imposing penalties on the 180 companies (as calculated by PRIME Database) that failed to meet the deadline. More than the penalties, what will hurt these companies is the perception that they couldn't care less about bringing in more diversity to their boardrooms.

Sebi's decision was nothing unique. Last month, Germany joined countries such as France, Italy, Belgium and Norway to make it compulsory for large firms to have women on their board. Several others have threatened to impose such quotas.

Advocates of a quota for women directors cite the success story of the 50 per cent reservation for women in panchayati raj institutions and how it has changed leadership attitudes in India's rural hinterland. Today, there are over 1.5 million women in these bodies, some of whom have done pioneering work in rural sanitation and women's education and health issues. The triumphs of this process of representation have been well documented.

There are other reasons, too, for the Sebi diktat. Only 5 per cent of board positions were held by women in India's top 100 companies. Even this doesn't show the true picture since a third of women CEOs are from promoter families. If they are taken out of the equation, the number would drop drastically.

These are valid arguments, but two questions (raised by two women CEOs) emerge: One, "Is feminism about the equal treatment of men and women, or the elimination of merit-based appointments?" And two, "Will a knife of quotas at your throat help in achieving women empowerment in boardrooms?" The answers to these questions are obvious.

Let us first see the absurd way in which corporate India complied with the Sebi norms. Half the companies made a complete mockery of the order by recruiting wives, daughters and even stepmothers, according to a report by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, which added that more than half the companies have appointed their relatives onto the board, who will speak in the same voice as their promoters and so, the diversity being sought by Sebi has been defeated.

Coming back to the questions raised by the two women CEOs. It can well be argued that a quota for boardroom representation is, by its very definition, an anti-meritocratic approach. Apart from the mindset issue of promoters who want to pack the board with their relatives - irrespective of their gender - a quota would force companies to dive for the same small pool of eligible women. As it is, the availability of competent directors, irrespective of their sex, is a critical issue in India. A quota can make this worse.

There is also no evidence from other countries' experience to suggest that quotas have trickled down to help women on the lower rungs of the ladder. They haven't led to more women in executive suites and upper management jobs and haven't improved wage equality.

The consensus among senior women executives seems to be that while companies must identify and remove any barriers to female participation in senior roles, the government or the regulator has no business telling companies how many women should sit on their boards because that extends way beyond any sensible boundary of corporate regulation.

And those who feel heartened by the success of women's reservation in panchayats would do well to read the following data point as well. An estimate by the US Population Division said India's women labour participation rate is only higher than Fiji's in a list of 14 Asia-Pacific nations.

The bigger issue is the cultural and social mindset in India where women are routinely discriminated against. For the latest proof, read what Lalu Prasad Yadav had to say on Thursday about his party's succession plan. The father of seven daughters and two sons said, "Who else but my son as my successor?"

Tokenisms like a quota for women directors will hardly help and there's a danger that some of these directors would be nicknamed the "golden skirts" who have come to this position not by merit but because of a regulatory diktat.

That would be the greatest disservice to the ladies who are competent enough to walk into a boardroom even without a quota in place.

First Published: Thu, April 09 2015. 21:48 IST