In 2013, Arundhati Bhattacharya made history by becoming the first woman chairperson of State Bank of India. Bhattacharya, who is now the Chairperson & CEO of Salesforce India, still holds the record as the only woman to have helmed the state-owned bank in its 217-year history.

Bhattacharya’s ascension to the top-most slot of SBI, however, was neither easy nor quick. “The first woman probationary officer entered the bank 50 years before I became the Chairman. So, it took 50 years for women to make the transition from the entry point to the C-suite,” said Bhattacharya while speaking at an event in Chennai early this year.

Bhattacharya’s tenure as SBI Chairman during 2013-2017 was, in many ways, a glorious period for women in banking. Her tenure coincided with a period when several other private and foreign banks were also headed by women, including Chanda Kochhar (ICICI Bank), Shikha Sharma (Axis Bank), and Kalpana Morparia (JP Morgan’s India business).

“That was a time when nearly 55 per cent of a country’s financial assets were managed by women-led institutions,” said Bhattacharya at the event.

Since then, things have turned topsy-turvy for the Indian banking industry, especially at the leadership level. Take the case of the 12 public sector banks. Except Union Bank of India, which is headed by A Manimekhalai, none of the PSU banks have women in the role of MD & CEO. The private sector, known for its focus on diversity, equity and inclusion practices, fare no better in this game. Not one out of the 20 private banks have a woman CEO.

Women on board

Women representation at the Board-level was also abysmally low in both public and private sector banks. According to data compiled by businessline, only HDFC Bank had at least one-fourth women representation at the board-level in FY23. The country’s largest lender SBI had no woman in its 12-member board in the previous fiscal.

Krishnendu Chatterjee, V-P & Business Head, BFSI, TeamLease Services, says the overall participation of women in the banking sector has significantly gone up over the years. “From only 10 per cent in the 1990s, the share of women in the banking workforce stands at 32 per cent as of 2022-23.”

He, however, acknowledged that the organisation structure in banks is still bottom heavy, with a major portion of the net employee additions going towards the entry or one level about that.

The bank-wise employee numbers also suggest the influx in women participation in the banking sector in the last 2-3 years. HDFC Bank added nearly 18,000 women employees between FY20 and FY23, while ICICI Bank added around 11,200 employees during this period. Federal Bank topped the list of banks with the highest women participation in FY23 at 41 per cent, while Bandhan Bank recorded the lowest with women accounting for only 10 per cent of its 7,000 plus workforce.

Leaky pipeline

Saundarya Rajesh, Founder-President, Avtar Group, says the low representation of women at the leadership level is due to the ‘leaky pipeline’ phenomenon, where women, who are on the path to leadership, drop off around the mid-management stage for some reason or the other. “It is quite pronounced in the (BFSI) sector,” she affirmed.

Take the case of HDFC Bank, which had 39,200 women employees as of FY23. Of this, more than 88 per cent are non-supervisory staff (entry level), while 10 per cent are in junior management. The ratio of women as a percentage of total employees dropped to 2 per cent at mid-management level and to a paltry 0.04 per cent at senior management level.

“As women move to mid-management level, they succumb to pressure and somehow lack the aspiration to grow further,” said Chatterjee, adding that the pressure is mostly driven by stereotypical issues around women such as work-life balance, making time for family, and performance pressure.

In her speech, Bhattacharya also highlighted the shrinking pie at the top management level at SBI. “We were recruiting 33 per cent at the probationary stage and at senior level, this percentage would come down to 4 per cent.”

vanish box

Avtar’s Rajesh has another interesting take on women leaving at mid-management level. She said just like women in STEM, women employed in the BFSI sector also drop off from the sector (but not employment), only to re-emerge in other sectors such as IT /ITes and services. A phenomenon she said is called ‘Vanish Box’.

Huma Tariq, CHRO, Dvara KGFS, says there are several deterrents for women to climb up the corporate ladder, especially in the BFSI sector. Tariq says recruiters typically assume that unconventional roles such as front end sales, on-field work, and collection and recovery jobs are not suitable for women. “This is purely a myth,” she said.

Tariq, who has cross-cultural experience across the BFSI, IT & ITeS industries, said 17 per cent of Dvara KGFS’s field team and field leadership team are women. She said the NBFC has women specific roles, and even has women-only branches in Tamil Nadu since 93 per cent of its borrowers are women.

While recalling her time at SBI, Bhattacharya said whenever the RBI Governor would host a reception, there used to be more sarees than suits in the room those days.

As the leadership positions in several public and private sector banks fall due to reappointments in the next two years, one can only hope that tuxedos and blazers will make way for more sarees, salwars and suave jackets.