NEW DELHI — When corporate headhunter Uday Chawla meets with his peers these days, the talk is mostly about finding women — and the competition is fierce.
That, he says, is because Indian companies are frantically scrambling to meet a new legal requirement that they have at least one woman on their boards by October, and the shortage of qualified women is staggering.
Everybody has a secret list of senior female professionals in other companies and retired female bureaucrats whom they are wooing, said Chawla, the managing partner in the executive search firm Transearch India.
“The general chatter is, ‘How many women’s names do you have on your list?’ and, ‘So-and-so is already taken,’ ” he said. “There is a lot of pressure now because of the deadline.”
India passed a law last year aimed at modernizing its corporations and making them socially responsible. Having a diverse board of directors is a key element of the law, reflecting a significant shift in attitudes toward working women that coincides with a wave of unprecedented anger over the perceived lack of public safety for women. A law against sexual harassment in the workplace was passed last year.
The move to raise women’s corporate profile also signals a push by Indian businesses to adopt practices well established in the West. In the past two decades, more and more international companies have come here, and Indian companies, particularly in the information technology industry, have expanded globally. For corporate boards, diversity and independence are the new buzzwords.
About two-thirds of publicly traded Indian companies — 922 of 1,462 — have no women on their boards, according to a joint survey conducted this year by the National Stock Exchange and Prime Database, a capital market data firm. Many are the country’s blue-chip firms.
For too long, Chawla said, corporate boardrooms in India have operated like “old boys’ networks.”
“They picked their members while playing golf with buddies or at an exclusive club — uncles and cousins, friends of family,” he said. “They packed the boards with yes men.”
That is changing. Since February, when India’s stock market regulator set the October deadline, 78 women have filled 84 new board positions across the country, said Pranav Haldea, managing director of Prime Database.
But the sudden demand has spotlighted the chronic shortage of women in top management positions in Indian businesses, as well as some of the deeper problems afflicting working women.
Even as young urban women have thronged to join India’s new IT, financial and pharmaceutical companies in recent years, census information shows that the percentage of working women in the country is among the lowest in the world. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report last year, India ranked 124 out of 136 nations — below Bangladesh, Bahrain, Indonesia and China — on economic participation by and opportunity for women.
Part of the reason, experts say, is that despite rising levels of education, Indian women continue to be held back by traditional expectations.
“Women face twin barriers. At home they are still expected to give up their careers for the sake of raising children. In the office, they are viewed as not fit enough for tough decisions at higher levels,” said Ranjana Kumari, director of the Center for Social Research and a member of the women’s empowerment committee at the Confederation of Indian Industry.
That means women don’t get promoted at the rate men do, she said. “This has resulted in this glaring deficit in our company boards, which project a backward and feudal face. But now, as our companies seek to acquire a global face, such boards will not be tenable.”
Headhunters say that the gentle nudge by the government may be just what Indian businesses need. But not everyone is so optimistic.
“The pipeline of qualified women candidates is not huge,” said Sangeeta Talwar, a senior marketing professional with three decades of experience in companies such as Tata Tea, Mattel and Nestle. “My fear is that many may put a woman on the board just to tick a box because they are being forced to do so at short notice, rather than expecting a meaningful contribution from them.”
The law is also vague on whether the new female board members must be independent of the companies that appoint them. This has prompted many heads of family-run businesses to bring in their wives, mothers, daughters or sisters for the female board position.
This month, Nita Ambani, the wife of India’s richest businessman, Mukesh Ambani, is set to become the first woman to join the board of Ambani’s company, Reliance Industries. At least 16 women have been made board directors in their family-owned firms since February, according to Haldea.
Not all the companies woke up late. Tata, one of India’s oldest corporations, launched a gender audit more than a year ago.
Women constitute about 20 percent of Tata’s 540,000 employees, but “this number comes down as you go up the pyramid,” said N.S. Rajan, the group’s chief human resources officer.
To remove a key hurdle women face on the corporate ladder, Rajan said, Tata is considering increasing its current three-month maternity leave to six months, followed by the option of flexible work hours.
Being the only woman in a room full of “50 black and gray suits” is no longer a new thing for Talwar, a director on the otherwise all-male boards of two big Indian companies.
She said her mother cautioned her when she took a marketing position three decades ago about the late hours and out-of-town travel involved, saying, “You picked a really tough job.” In her early years, her colleagues often called her “aggressive,” she said, “because that is what assertive women were called back then.”
Talwar said her mother-in-law lived with her and helped raise her children while she was at work. She was ranked one of the 30 most powerful women in Indian business by Business Today magazine in 2007, 2009 and 2010.
At her first board meeting, earlier this year, Talwar sat in her bright blue silk sari at the oval table in the conference room.
“I was quite vocal and participated actively during the three-hour strategy session and presentations,” she recalled. That evening, she called the board chairman and another member with a question: “Do you think I was too participative?”
“I wanted to strike the right balance between contributing actively versus being just a tick in the box,” she said.
Indian women continue to be held back by traditional expectations, experts say.