The banking world in India has been known for having a higher number of women in top jobs than other sectors. However, the past few months have not been kind to the sector, or to its women bosses. As a series of scandals and rising NPAs rock private banks in India, they have tainted three women at the top – ICICI chief executive Chanda Kochhar, Axis Bank chief executive Shikha Sharma, and Allahabad Bank’s chief executive officer Usha Ananthasubramanian.
The women, understandably, have come in for criticism. But is the criticism sharper because they are women?
Both Kochhar and Sharma were summoned by the Serious Fraud Investigation Office in Mehul Choksi-owned Gitanjali Gems fraud case. Photo: PTI
If top bosses of any company are under the scanner for irregularities, they should face flak. But the comments pouring in against the three CEOs have been heavily laced with gender, frequently including with the added disapproval of statements like “she did this despite being a woman!”
The glass ceiling, it seems, also comes with a morality coating.
The world has few women CEOs, India still fewer. The ones who make it are then naturally regarded as torch bearers of women empowerment, hailed as examples to others. The pedestal comes with greater visibility, and thus greater scrutiny.
If leaders do fall, they should face just consequences. However, making the issue not only about the individual but about their gender too - when was the last time you heard a tainted male CEO discussed, with someone adding, "haw - and he did this being a man!" – is deeply unfair. Globally, women are fighting a tough battle just for equal opportunities, even access, in the corporate world. Allegations against a few should not be allowed to weigh down the many.
Both Kochhar and Sharma were summoned by the Serious Fraud Investigation Office of the Ministry of Corporate Affairs in connection with the investigation into the Mehul Choksi-owned Gitanjali Gems fraud.
Apart from that, Kochhar is in hot waters over allegations that Videocon chairman Venugopal Dhoot invested crores of rupees in her husband’s company six months after taking a Rs-3,250 crore loan from ICICI Bank.
Though Kochhar is not named in the enquiry CBI is conducting into the case, and the bank has consistently backed her, criticism against her has been quick and severe.
Usha Ananthasubramanian has lost all executive powers at Allahabad Bank after she was named in the Punjab National Bank-Nirav Modi fraud. Photo: Twitter
Sharma’s stint as Axis Bank CEO has been shortened from June 2021 to December 2018, after the Reserve Bank of India raised questions over her performance. This is not such a usual practice – in fact, Sharma’s case is likely to set the precedent of the central bank getting more involved in private banks’ selection of CEOs.
Ananthasubramanian has been divested of all executive powers at Allahabad Bank after she was named in the Punjab National Bank-Nirav Modi fraud by the CBI.
But the stories around these three figures aside, the truth is also that women CEOs inhabit a tough world. First, they are a rare species – holding just 4.6 per cent of CEO spots at S&P 500 companies.
They are more likely to be depressed than their male counterparts, and have a one in four chance of being targeted by investor activism – the practice of investors using their stake in a corporation to influence its management. For male CEOs, the chances of this happening are nearly zero, according to a Fortune report.
Also, women often come up against the “glass cliff” – they get control of a company only when it is doing badly. But when their performance is evaluated, it is often not given the benefit of relaxed standards.
When Marissa Mayer took over the mess that was Yahoo, she was critisised for, among other things, returning to work too soon after having a baby, appearing in an issue of Vogue, and for her “brusque” style of management. Now imagine a man being criticised for any of this.
Fun fact: a 2015 American study had found that women CEOs in the Fortune 1000 “drive three times the returns as S&P 500 enterprises run predominantly by men”. Even then, they are hard to find in the corporate world.
IMF chief Christine Lagarde had said that to succeed, a woman must have a skin as thick as an old crocodile's. Photo: Reuters
However, even if women were not outperforming men, they deserve equal opportunities. They also deserve equal expectations of accountability, it being understood that corruption is inexcusable for anyone.
IMF chief Christine Lagarde, who faced her share and some more of brickbats after she was found guilty of negligence in a sale deal when she was France’s finance minister, had once said that “for a woman to get to the top, she needed skin as thick as an old crocodile”. But this advice is what women don’t deserve, to give or to follow.
A woman CEO should not have to be an idol or a crocodile. She should not forever be a representative of her gender. She should be allowed to remain, whether in success or in downfall, what a man would have been – just an individual.