The ascent of a few bright women to top posts in large Indian banks and financial firms gives the impression that India Inc is gender-neutral when it comes to providing career opportunities. But the truth is that women occupying top management positions in Indian firms are a rarity. Of the 10,000-odd directors who sit on the boards of NSE-listed companies, it is estimated that only 5 per cent are women. As for the Nifty companies, the figure is 7 per cent.

Policymakers are now seeking to remedy this problem by specifying a quota for women directors on corporate boards. In its new corporate governance guidelines, the Securities Exchange Board of India (SEBI) has mandated that all listed companies should have at least one woman director on their board by October 1 this year. With nearly a thousand board seats required to be filled over the next seven months, companies are scrambling for women directors; yet with relatively few women in professional senior management roles, qualified candidates are proving hard to find. As SEBI does not require the woman director to be independent, the worry, from a governance perspective, is that these positions may come to be manned by figurehead directors — wives, daughters or relatives of promoters. This would defeat the very purpose of the rule, which is to usher in greater independence in decision-making by a more diverse and accountable board. The other problem with this reservation is that it severely undermines the achievements of the women leaders who do make it to board positions purely on merit.

Instead of top-down quotas from the regulator, what is needed is a corporate ecosystem that allows more women managers to rise to senior management positions on merit. Now, many large firms in India have a fair representation of women at the lower echelons, but the problem is that many women opt out as they reach middle management roles. Women usually take mid-career breaks, if they lack support systems at home, to bring up children or take care of the elderly. International studies have also found that they usually lack active mentors or networks within the organisation. This suggests that if companies are serious about elevating more women to top jobs, they need to go beyond current fire-fighting mechanisms such as anti-sexual harassment policies and car drops for women employees. Their HR policies need to be customised to the specific needs of women; SBI’s recent move to offer women employees two-year ‘family leave’ for child-care, is an instance. Support infrastructure such as childcare facilities at the workplace, flexible work hours that focus on deliveries and sensitising the workforce to the need for gender diversity, are also critical to ensure that women have fair shot at making it to the top.