Poonam Barua, founder of WILL Forum, says it’s time women joined the ‘highest paid’ executives club

When I head out to meet Poonam Barua, I expect our conversation to centre round crèches in workplaces and flexi-timing for women executives. We mention these but Barua is way ahead on the curve. “Those problems exist,” she says, “and there are people working on them. I am focussed on getting women into leadership roles. How do they become CEO, CFO or sit on the boards of companies?”

This sharp focus is an interesting departure from the well-intentioned but fuzzy thinking that endangers the issue of equality for working women in India. Fuzzy, in fact, is the last word you would use to describe Barua. Brisk, driven and very friendly, Barua is an economist who brings the rigour of her training to bear on her mission. “Let’s talk money,” she says. “Women are the least used resource in the world, and that’s just plain bad economics.”

Proving this to India Inc is what Barua is out to do. Formerly with USIS and Pamasia Global, in 2007 Barua co-founded the Women in Leadership (WILL) Forum with a few senior women executives with the aim of nurturing corporate women leaders. Today, some 3,000 senior women executives from across 250 companies have participated in WILL programmes.

The programmes range from roundtables to direct mentoring of female business leaders to the ambitious module that benchmarks and rates companies as employers for women. The onus, says Barua, is pretty much on companies to offer workplaces and opportunities that enable women to grow as leaders. “With four per cent women in boardrooms, eight-10 per cent in senior management, and not one in the ‘highest-paid’ category, India ranks lowest in the world,” says Barua. An important part of what WILL does is to counsel men in leadership so that they can create an eco-system that fosters balanced leadership. A company that chooses to be benchmarked is assessed across a series of categories such as if it has a corporate disclosure policy that lists just how many women there are at all levels of the company. “Unspecific numbers mean nothing,” says Barua. Thus, if a company claims to have 30 per cent women but they are all at the entry level, it is damning evidence. “Where is your pipeline of women moving up?” she asks.

WILL mentors women to think like potential leaders. “I teach them to think and say ‘I want to become COO ten years from now’.” Career mapping, image building and networking are the other areas where women typically stumble. Barua picks mentors from the various member companies and cross-fertilises her seminars. WILL members include Infosys, Microsoft, Britannia, Pfizer India, the Essar Group, Britannia Industries, HCL Technologies, Vodafone India and many more.

In Chennai to chair an HCL roundtable on Women Driving Balanced Leadership, Barua says the best compliment she has received was when a man asked her, “When will you start a WILL for men?”

For details look up www.willforumindia.com