The new Companies’ Bill asks for gender-balanced company boards. For this to happen, women have to first reach the top of corporate hierarchies.

Poonam Barua means business. Her vision is to head the first wholly-owned-by-women company to be listed on the Bombay Stock Exchange, WILL Forum India. “I am going to be sold out when I float that IPO,” she grins. As founder-chairperson of the Forum for Women in Leadership (WILL Forum), she has been driving the agenda for more women on boards or ‘balanced boards for good governance’ since 2007. Her mentoring programmes have a wait-list for participation, and she has the support of more than 250 companies and over 150 CEOs in India and abroad.

With the new Companies Bill passed on August 8, her mission should get a little easier. The Bill provides for at least one woman director on the boards of listed companies, but already there is a debate on whether quotas should be introduced as some countries have done. By Barua’s standards, one woman on a board is as good as invisible. Other countries are aiming for 30 per cent women on company boards and some even higher. “You need at least 30 per cent to be mainstream,” she says.

With membership numbers now touching 4,000, Barua’s mentoring workshops and training programmes have spawned a force of 600 WILL ‘mentees’, as she calls them. More and more women are excited at the prospect of aiming higher than they thought possible before. “I provide thought leadership and wealth creation,” she says. Women account for nearly 40 per cent of the executive and corporate workforce in the 9,000 companies listed on BSE, but they form less than 10 per cent of senior and top management positions, and less than a dismal 5 per cent are on corporate boards as directors in India, according to a WILL study done in 2011.

One WILL mentee, Judith Angelina Pereira, Deputy General Manager, Talent Management, Mahindra & Mahindra, says the five-day cross-industry mentoring programme provides a unique platform to nurture women executives who have the potential to move into senior decision-making positions, including the boardroom, with an ability to bring greater value, wealth creation, good governance, and best performance to business and society.

The focus of WILL is simple — balanced leadership — one of the biggest takeaways from the programme for Pereira. “What got you here is not going to get you “there” (to the Board) and, therefore, what are the critical skills you need to build up. For me personally, the following equation sums it up:  Excellence (in Leadership) = Mindfulness x Confidence x Challenge x Collaboration,” says Pereira.

Echoing this, Shravani Dang, Group Vice-President – Corporate Communications, Avantha Group, and a WILL mentor, says “There are different stages in our career and we need to know how to get ahead. It’s not rocket science but how do you add value and gain knowledge. WILL is bridging that gap. Women can’t be left behind anymore and we are asking why they can’t be equipped to get to the top, and stay there.”

The WILL Forum has impacted companies in other ways. “TCS is a founding member of WILL and it has encouraged us to set up our own mentoring and executive learning programme called iEXCEL,” says Ritu Anand, Vice-President and Deputy Head, Global HR at TCS. Initiated three years ago, the programme targets middle and senior women executives within TCS, to motivate and groom them for the next level of leadership. “Often we see women at these levels cite flexibility issues, cut back on their aspirations, and take a back seat. We aim to inspire and provoke our women executives to take on more central roles and provide a platform for them to push the limits and achieve greater heights,” says Anand.

Few women favour a quota system. A report in February 2011 by Lord Mervyn Davies in the UK titled ‘Women on Boards’ also stopped short of insisting on quotas. It recommended that FTSE 100 companies should aim for a minimum 25 per cent female board representation by 2015. It quotes a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (2008) that suggests that at the current rate of change it will take more than 70 years to achieve gender-balanced boardrooms in the UK’s largest 100 companies. The two key issues identified were a lack of flexibility in the work-life balance, particularly maternity leave and young families; and secondly the perception of a traditional male cultural environment — the old boys’ network — and the lack of a comparative networking grid for women, which holds true for most countries including India.

The European Union has proposed legislation aiming for a 40 per cent quota for women among non-executive directors of listed companies. When Norway insisted on setting quotas with strict penalties for non-compliance, it achieved one of the most significant increases in women’s representation on boards, with 44.2 per cent directors today being women, up from just 6.8 per cent in 2002.

The need for more women in the boardroom is a no-brainer. As more men begin to attend WILL meetings, Barua says, “We are changing the language of participation.”

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Companies Bill passedAugust 8, 2013