Skip to content

DIVERSITY PERSPECTIVES: “30 percent is a start…Once that happens then the ceiling can be raised. Otherwise there can be a high ceiling but an empty room!”

August 22, 2020

Sonu Bhasin is one of the early and senior women professionals in the industry. In her career of over 30 years she set up and managed large businesses, and diverse teams, across financial and non-financial sectors in India and overseas.

Sonu led various businesses in senior leadership positions during her corporate career. She began as an elite TAS (Tata Administrative Service) Officer with the Tata Group and spent 13 years with the Group before becoming a banker. As a banker, she was a Director at ING Barings, President Axis Bank, Group President Yes Bank before going back to the Tatas as COO Tata Capital Limited.

Sonu is an Independent Director on Boards of well-known and reputed domestic and multinational companies. She now focuses on family businesses and is the Founder of FAB – Families And Business. She is a family business historian and is the Editor-in-Chief of Families & Business magazine – India’s only standalone magazine that addresses the concerns of family business owners/promoters/entrepreneurs. Sonu has worked extensively with both, the patriarchs and the inheritors of family businesses and has enabled them to look at their businesses through the prism of family dynamics.

Her first book The Inheritors – Stories of Entrepreneurship and Success, published by Penguin Random House, is a bestseller in the business books category. Her second book, Unstoppable – Kuldip Singh Dhingra and the Rise of Berger Paints, published by Penguin Random House is the biography of the owner and promoter of Berger Paints. Sonu is also a columnist with The Economic Times.

“The lazy excuse of ‘women have constraints’ need to be relooked, especially in the private sector”.

Praveen Gupta: From your time at the Tata Administrative Service (TAS) to now, as a member of many boards, how in your perception has corporate India evolved?

Sonu Bhasin: I have been part of Corporate India since 1987 and I do believe that it has evolved significantly in the last thirty plus years. One of the key areas is the focus on Corporate Governance which has increased, no doubt mandated by the Regulators.  The Boards, since you asked about them specifically, have also undergone some changes, again due to the regulators. The focus on the qualifications of the directors has increased and the Board is no longer a place just to have chai & samosas and catch up with friends.

PG: In terms of gender diversity on an overall basis the multinationals seem to be doing the best whereas Public Sector Companies are laggards (according to a recent IiAS Women on Boards study of Nifty 500 companies). Does this pose any risk to the governance outcome/ bottom-line performance?

SB: I actually have a different view.  If you see the leadership positions in the private sector companies, there are still very few women there. When asked about this the CEOs and the HR people typically talk of the constraints faced by women due to maternity leave and lack of mobility. They talk of the inability of women to take on postings outside the city they live in.  Thus, they say that due to these reasons the rise of women in the organisations slows down.

If you see the leadership positions in the private sector companies, there are still very few women there.

However, surprisingly women do not seem to face the same problems – maternity and transferability of jobs – in the government and public sector.  These jobs are transferrable, and women know it. Women working in the government also have children. Even then, we have women as Secretaries in the Central and State Governments, we have women as CEOs of public sector banks and in PSUs.  Thus, the lazy excuse of ‘women have constraints’ need to be relooked, especially in the private sector.

Regarding performance of organisations, there are enough studies by reputed firms to show that organisations with diversity deliver better results for all stakeholders.

However, surprisingly women do not seem to face the same problems – maternity and transferability of jobs – in the government and public sector.

PG: How are the Indian home-grown businesses doing on this front? Is the glass ceiling still in place? Is there a room for cognitive diversity?

SB: There is a glass ceiling everywhere and there is no running away from it. In some organisations it is thick and almost unbreakable while in the others there are cracks evident. In a very few organisations, the ceiling has been broken. The Indian home – grown businesses follow the general trend as it is not a business matter alone; rather it is a matter related to societal norms. However, Indian family businesses have an advantage over the non-family ones – if a patriarch takes a call to have his daughter as his successor, no one can object!

There is a glass ceiling everywhere and there is no running away from it. In some organisations it is thick and almost unbreakable while in the others there are cracks evident. In a very few organisations, the ceiling has been broken.

PG: Are family owned businesses providing equal opportunity in leadership positions to the daughters?

SB: I cannot generalize this as it depends on the patriarch.  When the patriarch has only daughters, the decision is easier – Apollo Hospitals and Luxor are two examples. Then there are the patriarchs who chose their daughters over their-sons to be their business successors. These numbers are few but do exist.  I would say that the family businesses are indeed giving their daughters opportunities but will not go as far to say equal opportunities.

I would say that the family businesses are indeed giving their daughters opportunities but will not go as far to say equal opportunities.

PG: How big do you believe is the gap between men and women when it comes to remuneration?

SB: The gap is significant. There are many studies carried out and it comes out consistently that for the same work, men get paid more than women.

PG: Globally ESG (Environmental, Societal, Governance) is what really constitutes governance now. How serious are Indian corporates about key components like #sustainability?

SB: Sustainability is an area that corporates cannot ignore any longer. There is a social pressure as well as pressure from the authorities. Thus, there is focus on sustainability and increasingly it does get discussed at the Board levels.

PG: Is #ClimateChange on the discussion agenda at Indian boards?

SB: From what I have seen and what I have heard the Climate Change is a matter which the boards consider important but there is not much discussion on it unless there is a specific reference to the business model.

PG: Is the #pandemic and its ramifications like work from home (WFH) narrowing the options for professional women or proving to be more challenging for working women?

SB: Work from Home is both an advantage and a disadvantage for a woman. The advantage for the women is the same for men working from home – no time spent on commuting, flexi-time etc.  However, there are more disadvantages for women working from home than their male counterparts. If the woman is home, it is automatically assumed that all housework is her responsibility. Thus, unless the family adjusts to the WFH culture, we will see a lot of women actively wanting to come back to the office

There are more disadvantages for women working from home than their male counterparts. If the woman is home, it is automatically assumed that all housework is her responsibility.

PG: Why should women concede to say aiming for 30% of independent directors to be women (from the current 17% at the Nifty 500). Why not 50%? The floor tends to become the ceiling!

SB: 30 percent is a start. It is better than what it was before the regulator mandated the appointment of a woman director on the boards. I believe that it will take some time for all companies to be compliant in the letter and the spirit of the regulation. Once that happens then the ceiling can be raised. Otherwise there can be a high ceiling but an empty room!

PG: Many parts of our country remain dominantly paternalistic. What do you think needs to be done to make it a level playing field for the girl child to grow in?

SB: You are right when you say that large parts of our country remain paternalistic. In fact, I would say that a large part of the world remains paternalistic. Seen in that context I would say that India, even though largely paternalistic, ‘allows’ its women to go further than most countries do. We have all seen that one of the most developed nation in the world, the USA still has not had a woman leading the country. In fact, women were allowed to vote after many years of their country’s independence. In India, on the other hand, we have had women prime ministers, presidents, chief ministers, leaders of political parties, secretaries in the government and more.

I would say that a large part of the world remains paternalistic. Seen in that context I would say that India, even though largely paternalistic, ‘allows’ its women to go further than most countries do.

To make the world a level playing field for the girl child the effort has to begin at home. Mothers in law need to stop asking their bahus to produce a grandson; mothers need to stop treating their daughters and sons differently; mothers in law need to stop expecting their working daughters in law to come back home after a full day’s work at office and then make dinner for the family while the son lounges around, tired after a full day’s work at office. Equality and treating daughters and sons with equanimity at home right from the start will sow the seeds for a world which has a level playing field.

Equality and treating daughters and sons with equanimity at home right from the start will sow the seeds for a world which has a level playing field.

PG: The world has been abuzz with the five countries that have coped exceptionally well with the pandemic – needless to mention their performance on SDGs. Is that not a signal strong enough for what the rest of the world ought to do?

SB: The work done by the leaders and people of the five countries has been exceptional and is indeed a shining example for all of us to follow.

PG: Many thanks for sharing some amazing perspectives, Sonu! My best wishes for your ongoing explorations.

From → Articles

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: