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Reservations about quotas for women on boards
October, 12th 2006
With women matching up to men in every walk of life, the crutch of reservation on company boards is not warranted. Norway has ordained its listed companies to ensure that by 2008, their boards contain no less than 40 per cent women directors. Neighbour Denmark has settled for a modest 20 per cent reservation. A little down, France has chosen to emulate Denmark rather than Norway and has also settled for a 20 per cent reservation for women in the rarefied environs of corporate boardrooms. India's Department of Company Affairs, not so long ago, toyed with the idea of a 20 per cent reservation for women on the boards of listed companies. Perhaps its successor, the Ministry of Company Affairs, would feel emboldened to take the proposal forward once the promised 33 per cent reservation for women in Parliament and State assemblies progresses to fruition in the next session of Parliament as promised by the Government towards the fag end of the last session which, of course, has now become almost de rigueur at the end of each session, thus inviting yawn if not derision from feminists in particular. An important demographic fact in India is the male-female ratio is close to 50 per cent, which naturally should see women getting 50 per cent representation everywhere as a matter of course. That they have not is indeed a matter for concern. It is, therefore, in the fitness of things that the political class is yearning to set right this distortion. But do they need this reservation self-respecting women would call this condescension from the corporate world? ICICI Bank's scorching and enviable growth owes a great deal to its women brigade. Political vs economic forums One may contend that with women rubbing shoulders with men in every walk of life, including in workplaces, the crutch of reservation is not warranted because they would any way make it to the boardrooms on their own steam sooner than later. Moreover, political forums are different from economic forums. While there may be a compelling reason to secure reservation for women in Parliament and Assemblies if only to break the stranglehold of men in shaping the destiny of this great country, no such apparent justification seems to exists for ushering in a compulsory regime of reservation for women on company boards. This is not to suggest that female presence is only ornamental. They certainly can match if not outdo males when it comes to taking sagacious commercial decisions. But the composition of boards is one area where the company's desire should rule supreme if only to foster corporate democracy. The short point is let all the directors be women if that is what a company wants, but any compulsion in this regard would be unwarranted. Like village-male-patriarchs who reportedly still loom large and rule through the proxies of their better halves or daughters-in-law despite the compulsion to have women at the helm of panchayats in some States, the domineering and overbearing presence of men cannot be wished away at least in family controlled companies either. In companies, the boardroom strength should ideally be determined by the shareholding clout. Anything extraneous would be an anathema to corporate democracy. This then is the difference between a public institution, if one may say so, like Parliament and a private institution like a company. The latter is a private property and no compulsion, howsoever well meaning, should be exercised. S. Murlidharan (The author is a Delhi-based chartered accountant.)
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