Indian companies in mad rush to find women board members

Online retail lets women cash in on India's economy
Online retail lets women cash in on India's economy

More than a year ago, India's financial regulator gave listed companies an ultimatum: Add at least one woman to your board.

Hundreds of Indian companies have failed to comply. At other firms, management have appointed daughters, wives and other close family members to the board -- a move that complies with the letter of the new regulation, but not the spirit.

Out of the 1,456 companies listed at India's National Stock Exchange (NSE), as many as 180 -- or 12% -- failed to appoint a single woman director, even after the government's initial deadline was extended by six months, according to PRIME Database, a firm that compiles capital market data.

Another 770 listed companies have appointed directors that cannot be considered independent -- meaning they are management's close family members or have another vested interest -- according to Prime Database.

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Pranav Haldea, managing director of PRIME Database, said that appointing next-of-kin directors creates a corporate governance problem, and does nothing to solve gender inequality.

"If the female appointee, a family member, is qualified enough then there shouldn't be a problem," he said. "However, we can see that that is not the case. Compliance is being done only on paper, which is absolutely wrong."

The argument for more women on corporate boards -- aside from basic issues of equality -- is that companies make better decisions when a variety of views are considered. There is even some evidence to suggest that firms with diverse boards outperform their more homogenous rivals.

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India, in particular, has struggled with the issue. In a society that has been regularly branded as patriarchal, little has been done to address the widening gap between men and women in the corporate world.

The International Labour Organization ranked India at a dismal 120 out of 131 countries for female labor participation in 2013. Roughly 25% of women in India are active in the workforce, a lower rate than that of Cuba, Bangladesh and Somalia. Female literacy stands at 54% in India, more than 21 percentage points behind that of males.

Arundhati Bhattacharya, the only woman to lead the State Bank of India in its 208-year history, warned earlier this year that companies need to do more to help women.

"In India, women are still the primary caregivers," she told CNN. "Whether it be for children, whether it be for old people or sick people, you are the primary caregiver. No matter what position you are in."

"I think we need to do more in order to get [women] to stay [in the workforce]," she said. "There are still too few people staying put for them to have a good shot at the top jobs."

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