The appointment of Arundhati Bhattacharya as the head of State Bank of India should prompt a closer look at the financial restraints of millions of Indian women.
The fuss about the first woman to head the venerable State Bank of India (SBI) has subsided. Without doubt, it was an event worth noting, even if before Arundhati Bhattacharya got to that post, many other women had made it to the top position of several banks, both public and private.
There are, however, two different aspects of women and banks that are far more relevant than the ascendancy of one or several women to the top ranks.
One is the rather obvious issue of why so few women still break through the glass ceiling in India. The women professionals who have succeeded are still the exceptions. For every one of them, there are many who were pushed out, pushed down or voluntarily gave up because they could not be super women.
In fact, many of the women who have risen to the top in the banking sector acknowledge that what helped are the pro-active, pro-women policies that some banks adopted a couple of decades back. This allowed women, who had the potential to advance in their careers as managers to opt for flexible hours or even a couple of years away from work because of familial responsibilities. Instead of penalising them for the additional roles they are compelled to play because they are women, these organisations facilitated them. As a result, many of these women were able to pick up where they left off and still do well. So women’s success in the banking sector is not entirely accidental.
The other, more relevant, question for the vast majority of Indian women is why banking is seen as such a natural fit for them. Women are better at managing banks, we are told, because they are more meticulous, more cautious, and wiser in money management. Why women have become like this, if indeed the stereotype is true, is not discussed enough.
By nature, neither men nor women are better bankers. It is ridiculous to suggest that biology determines something like this. But society surely does. Our society virtually forces the majority of women to be more careful about finances because they know that the burden of trying to balance the household budget inevitably falls on their shoulders.
It is also true that because women have no control over the income of their husbands, they tend to manage carefully whatever is given to them to run the house. Once again, this is not a responsibility of their own. Being thrifty is not a choice, it is a necessity.
Even women who have independent incomes often find in our patriarchal households that it is their fathers, their husbands and even their brothers who control the way they spend the money they have earned. So financial independence is not a reality for the majority of women, even if they are in paid employment. And I am not speaking only of poor women.
The fact that so many women responded to the self-help groups and savings programmes launched in the 1980s was not really surprising. That even the poorest of them were willing to put aside something towards savings was because these women knew the value of having something available over which they would have some control.
However, even though the self-help groups were successful initially, the reality today is that the vast majority of women still cannot access formal banking services. Whereas the informal savings groups allow them some credit for emergencies, or as an advance for their small businesses, many women cannot access these services from scheduled banks easily. Even the forthcoming Bharat Mahila Bank will not make a dent in this reality anytime soon.
The reason women cannot avail of bank credit is because the majority of them own too little to put down as collateral. Only 13 per cent of women own agricultural land although their work produces most of the grain and dairy produced in this country. The figures for home ownership would not be very different.
If the first woman to head the SBI in its 206-year-old history has stirred some interest in the subject of women and banking, that is all for the good, so long as it moves beyond personalities to the real-life issues that face millions of women.