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Valli Arunachalam
Valli Arunachalam

Women should feel free to chase their ambitions

The Ambadi case can’t be viewed in isolation. Women seeking business leadership roles find themselves struck down too often. Male attitudes must change and gender policies do better

Women are encouraged at conferences, seminars and huddles on women’s empowerment to raise their hands for leadership positions. But very rarely does a woman who actually raises her hand in a male-clubbish company succeed. This goes not just for executive positions, but corporate governance roles as well. The latest case in point is that of Valli Arunachalam, who is the owner—together with her mother and sister—of an 8.15% stake in Ambadi Investments Ltd, the promoter family’s holding company of the almost 40,000 crore Murugappa Group. Earlier this week, the company’s all-male board rejected her bid for a seat on its board with a loud bellow saying “no". Arunachalam and the other women shareholders have been trying to get a fair value for their shares from this public limited but unlisted holding company. After failing to get that, they are now trying to join the board as a means to take their fight to the next level. Some observers have tried to portray the Ambadi case as one that has little to do with a gender bias, but such assertions do not hold up to scrutiny. The truth is well known. It does not take more than a nodding acquaintance with the ways of business to acknowledge an acute lack of gender diversity in boardrooms and managements across the country.

While women in India got the vote as a matter of process, unlike their counterparts in most Western democracies, the journey to asset ownership, workplace leadership and into positions of influence and power on company boards has been long-drawn and difficult. It is a two-way problem. The overall socio- political setup, or the system as it were, keeps women from working outside their homes by littering the path with obstacles, instead of facilitating this endeavour, and women in turn often find it easier not to open yet another battle front. Most women who get to the top of their professions and achieve leadership roles speak of supportive homes. While that may be a necessary condition for such success, it is clearly not sufficient. Legal and institutional mechanisms that assure women a seat at the table are needed too.

Though the country’s legal provisions are unclear in the case of an unlisted company, it is important to call out the ethical failures signalled by the frequently boorish male rejection of women’s quest for business authority. This should not needlessly be mixed up with issues of inheritance (which have also been subject to traditional attitudes that disfavour gender equity). This is about justice as much as the value of diversity. It is well documented that the presence of women in leadership positions and boardrooms is a net positive for business performance. There have been quibbles over causation versus correlation in the studies that have shown that gender-diverse firms do better, but this outcome itself is beyond dispute. It is unfortunate that policy-level affirmative action is needed, but it clearly is. Under the Indian Companies Act, a firm with paid-up share capital of 100 crore or more, or an annual turnover of 300 crore or more, must have at least one woman on its board. In 2019, just 15% of our Nifty-500 firms’ board members were women, and fewer than 5% of them had women chief executive officers. This low proportion reflects poorly on our business culture. Something fundamental needs to change—among men.

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