The New York Times
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January 28, 2010
The Female Factor
Female Bankers in India Earn Chances to Rule
By HEATHER TIMMONS
MUMBAI In New York and London, women remain scarce among top bankers despite decades of struggle to climb the corporate ladder. But in Indias 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 countrys 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.
In a country where parents in some areas still prize boys over girls; where overall female literacy rates are poor; and Sania Mirza, a top tennis player, said this month that she would quit playing after marriage, the banking industrys wealth of women in management may seem surprising. But 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 isnt 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 Stanleys investment bank in India. Male bankers and managers run the gamut from devoutly religious to devoted family men to late-night socialites.
Women could join the workplace on their own terms, Ms. Kidwai said. You still have to network, you still have to work hard, but that made it easier.
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.
These women handle many of Indias biggest deals raising $9.7 billion for the power company NTPC or negotiating Vodafone Groups purchase of an $11.1 billion stake in Hutchison Essar.
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.
You got your next big challenge based on your performance and your potential, not whether you were male or female, said Chanda Kochhar, chief executive of Icici Bank, where women make up 40 percent of the senior management. Mrs. Kochhar has been at the bank for her entire 25-year career, moving from corporate to retail banking, then directing the international business before becoming chief financial officer.
Women excel when they are subject to an open competition, said Shyamala Gopinath, one of the Reserve Bank of Indias two female deputy governors.
India operations of big global banks constitute a tiny portion of overall profits, because debt markets and deal size and volume are smaller than in developed countries. But Indias importance has grown as investment banks bet on emerging markets for growth and simultaneously move more complicated jobs to India to cut costs at home.
So sometimes these women oversee more employees than many top managers at the banks headquarters.
About 11 percent of HSBCs 331,000 employees are in India, for example, and of JPMorgan Chases 220,000 employees, nearly 7 percent are in India.
One in five of Indias big bank, insurance and money-management companies is headed by a woman, according to a study by the headhunting group EMA Partners. By contrast, there are no women leading major American or European banks, and no woman has ever run a Wall Street investment bank.
Bosses sometimes gravitate toward women in India because they think women are less corruptible, more straightforward and above board most of the time, said K. Sudarshan, managing partner, India, for EMA.
In terms of compensation, none of the women interviewed said they had ever felt they were paid a different amount than their male counterparts.
Here salary is totally nondiscriminatory, said Usha Thorat, the other female deputy reserve governor at Indias central bank. The idea that women might be paid less for the same job as men in the United States came as a surprise to me, she said.
At the same time, women in banking in India say they have always felt more pressure than men.
Always, that is a given, Ms. Kidwai said. It was very clear we had to perform better and work harder.
She added that the women now heading banks had often been the first women hired in their early jobs and had been watched like hawks.
And they all relied heavily on a support network of family and Indias cheap labor pool to help watch their children. Some enlisted mothers and mothers-in-law for child care for months or years, and all of them employed full-time nannies and maids.
The length of maternity leave differs from bank to bank, but the average is about three months.
Meera Sanyal, head of RBS in India, started working in India at a branch office of Grindlays Bank in Calcutta, dealing with a barrage of upset corporate customers and a unionized staff that resented her for replacing an older man. She revamped the way the bank handled clients, according to profitability; learned Bengali to communicate better with the local staff; and ultimately convinced reluctant unions to accept automation, though it would mean layoffs.
She was working at Lazard in India when she became pregnant with her first child. She recalls that when she told her boss she wanted to work flexible hours after her baby was born, he said: Are you crazy? Weve invested a lot of money in you.
Rather than quit, she said, she vowed to work so hard until she gave birth that Lazard would feel it had gotten its moneys worth. She wrapped up a deal on July 6 and delivered the baby a day later. After that, her boss reconsidered, allowing her to work flexible hours for the same pay. There are several men, she said, who made it possible for me to do what I wanted to do.
Now she is doing the same for other women at the bank. Recently, a risk manager said she needed to quit because she was pregnant and had been prescribed bed rest. Ms. Sanyal suggested that the bank set up a home office instead that would allow her to work from bed. After having a healthy baby, shes back at work and absolutely a star performer, Ms. Sanyal said.
Small things like that cost us nothing, she added. It is just a way of being more flexible.
Kalpana Morparia, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase in India, had some simple advice for Western banks that are trying to increase the number of women at the top. Just be gender neutral, she said. Men are just as smart as we are.