At the top, govt banks set to be all-boys club!

2014 began with 5 women heads of state-run banks. It would end with at most 3. Worse, there’s just one woman candidate for CMD post at present. So what’s stopping them?


Trithesh Nandan | April 10, 2014

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
— Charles Dickens

or the 26-year-old bank officer in Ahmedabad, that moment came in 2012-13. Having worked a few months for a top private sector bank in Ranchi, Jharkhand, she (name withheld on request) sat for the probationary officer (PO) exam and cleared it in the first shot. Having zoomed in on the Bangalore-headquartered Canara Bank, and then in her early twenties, she was looking at a prospective career in banking.

However, having shifted base all too many times; from Bijnor to Chandpur to Dehradun, all within a year’s time, the young bank officer was not so sanguine about her work anymore. She learnt the difficulties of her profession as a woman fairly soon. “There are a lot of complexities a woman faces in far-flung areas,” says the scale-I officer. “I faced a lot of problems shifting at regular intervals – that too in semi-urban areas.”

As for a career, she says, “Given a chance, I don’t want to take higher assignments in banks.” And therein perhaps lies the tale of women bankers, at least in PSBs.

Barely three months ago, there were as many as five women heading PSBs. It was considered the best period for women employees in ‘sarkari banks’, those much-scorned and yet much-admired institutions. Never had as many women headed so many state-run banks at the same time.

In October 2013, when Arundhati Bhattacharya became the first woman to head the 207-year-old State Bank of India (SBI) as its chairperson, she had joined a glorious league of women who had scaled to the very top of PSBs. Shubhalakshmi Panse was chairman and managing director (CMD) of Allahabad Bank, VR Iyer the CMD of Bank of India, and Archana Bhargava was in the same position at United Bank of India. They were soon joined by Usha Ananthasubramanian, the Punjab National Bank executive director who was appointed CMD of the newly created Bharatiya Mahila Bank (BMB), catering exclusively to the need of women’s economic empowerment.

With so many women at the top of the banking pyramid, it suddenly appeared as if the male bastion had been breached.

But by the end of January, Panse had served her tenure and retired from Allahabad Bank and Archana Bhargava made an inglorious exit late-February from the Kolkata-based UBI due to mounting non-performing assets (NPAs) at the bank (it touched 10.5 percent at the end of the December quarter of 2013-14), though she cited health reasons for her resignation.

But that is only the beginning of the bad news for women in banking. For, finding the next Bhattacharyas, Panses, Iyers, Bhargavas and Ananthasubramanians – and getting back Dickens’s “best of times” – could take more than a little while. At present, there is just one woman at the level of executive director (ED), Trishna Guha, of the Mumbai-headquartered Dena Bank.

And it is from the level of EDs that PSBs get their top woman or man – the CMD.

All-male club?
After Panse’s retirement in January, the government chose Punjab National Bank’s ED Rakesh Sethi to head the Kolkata-based Allahabad Bank. In fact, for as many as four CMDs who retired in 2013-14, not a single woman replaced them. The reason is not any gender bias but simply lack of option: there was only one woman ED in PSBs, and she too became an ED only in August 2013, hardly fulfilling the criterion of serving as an ED for at least one year to be eligible for the CMD’s post.

CMDs of state-run banks are appointed from among executive directors of any PSB, with criteria of two-year residual service and having served for at least one year as an ED. There, however, have been some exceptions in the recent past. The government relaxed the appointment criteria to appoint chairman of SBI and Punjab & Sind Bank. Jatinder Bir Singh, appointed as CMD of Punjab & Sind Bank, is not a banking professional but a 1983-batch IAS officer of Assam-Meghalaya cadre, who worked as additional secretary in the ministry of water resources. Earlier, the government had appointed an IAS officer to head the Delhi-based bank in 2000.

More vacancies at the top will emerge soon, as the finance ministry has to select CMDs for at least six PSBs over the next few months. This list includes UBI, which is now run by two executive directors of the bank after Bhargava’s early exit. The CMD posts of Indian Overseas Bank and Bank of Baroda will be vacant in August, while heads of two other institutions – Canara Bank and Oriental Bank of Commerce – will retire in October.
V Kannan, appointed CMD of Vijaya Bank in January 2014, will retire at the start of next year.

Besides, with the Bharatiya Mahila Bank on expansion mode, it is also likely to face problems putting a woman at the highest level of decision-making after Usha Ananthasubramanian’s exit.

Accepting the problem of getting women officers at the apex, Ananthasubramanian says: “This problem has resulted from ill-planning from the beginning. The shortage of women in top managerial positions is because of poor diversity management at the HR level. Also, many women who got through bank jobs dropped out along the way. In order to ensure promotions of women at the top level, continuously enriching the pipeline needs to be done.”
After bank nationalisation in 1969, women started getting into banks in the late 1970s and early ’80s. But it was only 31 years later that PSBs got their first woman CMD, when Ranjana Kumar took over the reins at the Chennai-headquartered Indian Bank in 2000. This was when the bank was going through troubled times, and the turnaround under her stewardship is still part of the banking folklore.

But even nearly a decade and a half since Ranjana Kumar reached the apex, the number of women in PSBs who have climbed the ladder all the way through is still in single digit.

Set up by the government in 2010 to study human resource issues in banks, the Khandelwal committee found a large percentage of women working at clerical levels in PSBs, and the numbers dwindled as the hierarchical ladder went up. “The representation of women employees in the executive cadre is 2.66 percent, officer cadre 10.87 percent and clerical cadre 26.5 percent,” the committee said in its report.

“At a time when women’s empowerment is being talked about so much, this shortage (of women officers) shows the kind of difficulties women have to face at all levels in every sphere. This is a grave problem that begs immediate attention,” Ananthasubramanian says.  

A minority, but why?
Four years after the Khandelwal committee submitted its report to the government, the story is not one bit brighter. Take the case of mid-level women officers at PSBs: 11 public sector banks don’t have women as general managers – third from top in the PSB hierarchy. Another 15 PSBs have just one, two or three women GMs. But the count is never more than three for these institutions.

In PSBs, general managers are considered the top post for their say in decision-making at the operational level on a day-to-day basis. EDs are appointed from a bunch of GMs of public sector banks.

Till the level of GMs, the appointments are from within the same bank, while EDs and CMDs are inter-PSB appointees.

While Canara Bank is at or near the zenith among PSBs going by its size of balance sheet and the number of branches, only three of the bank’s 34 general managers are women. The story is similar at the bigger Punjab National Bank (PNB), Bank of Baroda (BoB) and Bank of India (BoI), with marginal representation of women at the top. Of PNB’s 42 GMs, only two are women, both operating at the bank’s headquarters with none at the field general managers’ position.

At BoB, only two of its 22 general managers are women.

“Despite the achievements of some women officers, who have scaled the top, the list is otherwise empty for women. This is because many women who join banks after clearing the clerical and PO exam refuse to accept promotion for the next level,” says a scale-three officer of Dena Bank on condition of anonymity. And why is that so? Only to avoid being transferred to far-flung and rural areas, he replies. “By their thirties, most women employees get caught in looking after families and thus opt to remain in the same position despite having the same level of talent as their male counterparts.”

The Khandelwal committee, too, identified women’s reluctance to take transfers as the main reason for their inadequate representation in senior management. “(The) main problem in making best use of women resources by PSBs is the mobility factor,” the committee reported. “This is also a principal reason for their inadequate representation in the senior managements of banks.”

Banking, says a Delhi-based woman employee (name withheld on request) of Syndicate Bank who chose not to take a promotion throughout her career and is due for retirement next year, is “not just eight-hour shifts. If you are an officer, you have to devote extra hours to your work. So your family suffers.
This, she reiterates, is the main reason why women hesitate to take higher positions in banks.”

There are also cases of women who were promoted as officers but went back to the clerical cadre because they were given postings in remote areas.
The Khandelwal panel, which found women constitute only 17 percent of the workforce in PSBs, also recommended a two-year sabbatical for women employees to take care of domestic responsibilities. “(A) conscious effort would have to be made to ensure adequate exposure to women executives to enable them to rise in the hierarchy,” it observed.

The banking unions, under the banner of the United Forum of Banking Union, has also been demanding better work condition for women employees. For instance, the Forum wants maternity leave raised from the present six-month duration to one year for each child.

The jury is out whether that is only a cosmetic change and whether it would make any drastic difference but experts are of the view that each nano-step opens the door slightly more ajar for women to step into the elevator to the top.



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