Asha Nair

Director, Religare Health Insurance Co.Ltd

Director(Retd), United India Insurance Co. Ltd

When we talk of women leaders in India, the names that spring to our mind readily, are Indira Gandhi, Naina Lal Kidwai, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Ranjana Kumar, Arundhati Bhattacharya, Chanda Kochhar and Shikha Sharma.

When we talk of leaders, we mean those individuals who are able to give a sense of direction to a mass of people. So we can have good leaders, like Mahatma Gandhi or Mother Teresa or bad leaders, like Adolf Hitler or Pol Pot.

However, when we talk of leaders in the Corporate Sector, we mean individuals who head organisations as they are expected to give direction to their workforce. They become leaders by virtue of their position.

A woman’s primary role, has always been considered to be a homemaker- to look after the house and family members. When financial necessity forced women to seek jobs outside the home, they got jobs as typists, clerks or secretaries, as women were considered to be good at doing routine jobs and providing support services to their male bosses. In an office, they were given jobs, to implement the decisions taken by the male bosses, they were rarely involved in decision making. However, with increasing literacy, girls started appearing for competitive exams and scoring well. However, the challenge remained – of getting men to accept that a woman could do a man’s job equally well, if not better.

While it took more than a half a century after Independence, for the first woman, Ranjana Kumar, to be appointed as CMD  in the banking sector, it took more than 6 decades for the first woman CMD, Geeta Muralidhar, to be appointed in the Public Sector Insurance Sector.

Till very recently, we did not have any women CEOs in the Public Sector Insurance Companies, but in the past 5 years, we can boast of Geeta Muralidhar of Export Credit Guarantee Co. Ltd,( 2014), Alice Vaidyan of GIC Re (2016), T. L. Alamelu of Agriculture Insurance Corporation( 2017), and Tajinder Mukherjee of National Insurance Co.Ltd (2018). We can now truly state that the glass ceiling has been broken. In fact GIC Re last year, had their top management comprising mainly women, with the CMD, both Directors, Company Secretary and several General Managers , all women. We now, even have a woman as Member (Non- Life) at IRDAI .However at LIC, we have yet to see a woman Chairman though on the private sector side, we had Shikha Sharma as CEO of ICICI Prudential and now Dr. R M Visakha as CEO of IndiaFirst  Life and Vibha Padalkar of HDFC Life.

It has been a long and arduous journey for women, who now comprise approximately 25-30% of the insurance workforce. This has been achieved without any form of reservation for women, which concept, I am personally opposed to. I believe a woman can earn more respect, if  she achieves a position on her own merit, through fair competition.


The following challenges are usually faced by women in the corporate sector as patriarchal and misogynist attitudes have to be overcome:

  1. Equal opportunity in recruitment
  2. Equal opportunity in promotions
  3. Equal opportunity in selection for challenging job profiles
  4. Equal opportunity in foreign postings
  5. Interruptions in career progression due to motherhood

How can one ensure equal opportunity in recruitment or promotions? This issue is now largely addressed by having a woman member on the Selection or Promotion Panel. However, this seemingly transparent solution could also be manipulated by having a docile woman member who would toe the line of her male counterparts. Also,  it is often seen that these interview panels comprise just one female member instead of having equal representation of the genders.

In the Public Sector Insurance Industry, we have generally two streams of employees- Development/ Marketing and Administration. Women were almost exclusively on the administration side as it was felt that women were not capable of marketing– just like women were kept within the confines of their homes by over protective husbands, male bosses felt women were safer if they are confined to their offices with a known set of people around them.

Women were rarely considered for postings as Branch Managers, Divisional Managers, Regional Managers etc. It is only with a larger number of women officers getting recruited by mid -eighties, that women started demanding that they be considered for Marketing functions. So it is only in the late eighties-early nineties that women slowly got appointed as Branch or Divisional Managers with one or two such appointments in a region. Now, one is proud to note the tremendous progress made in such appointments.

A few insurance companies have foreign offices, New India Assurance Co. in particular. The male dominated management was always reluctant to post a woman abroad even in a no. 2 position, driven no doubt by concerns of her safety in a foreign land. They were unable to accept the fact that an adult woman should be allowed to decide her own threshold of safety. So even when women officers applied and did extremely well in interviews for foreign posting, they were overlooked, till the beginning of this millennium, when Hema Padmanabhan was posted to Mauritius. Thereafter many more women did get posted even to challenging countries with big operations like UK. In fact presently, the CEO of UK operations is a woman- Neerja Mahajan.

Young married girls face a bigger challenge in recruitment and postings as Selectors’ decisions are clouded by the fear that these girls will soon conceive and go on prolonged Maternity Leave which will disrupt office working. This would be followed by frequent leave taking to tackle the issues related to raising children. Though these fears are not unfounded, men do not readily accept that they too want children and hence should be sympathetic to these unavoidable disruptions in a woman’s career and not penalize her for the same. In fact, older women face similar disruptions in their career, as they have then to take care of old parents and/or in-laws. They are thus unable to accept promotions which are coupled with transfers.


Thus in order to assist women in career progression and groom them to leadership positions, it is necessary to have mentors who could be men or women who could guide them during their career journey. If the bosses become mentors, it is always advantageous. If the boss is supportive in the early years of a woman’s career, ensuring she gets selected and goes for appropriate training courses, allows her the necessary relaxations of punctuality and leave during child-rearing years, identifies her strengths and further develops the same, whilst encouraging her to overcome her weaknesses, it would go a long way in developing her self- confidence and ability to contribute more to the Company and Industry.

The mentor has to be “ a friend , philosopher and guide”. He/she should be in a position to convince the management of giving an opportunity to the woman employee to take on challenging assignments, if the employee shows the aptitude and willingness to take on such an assignment.

Every employee will have an aptitude towards certain types of jobs. The woman employee should be encouraged to develop an expertise in that area. Notwithstanding the area of expertise, women should also be encouraged to take up different job profiles in the organization to assess their suitability for leadership roles. Public Sector Companies do provide this opportunity for job rotation. The written,  communicative and creative skills of women also need to be developed by encouraging them to make presentations in public fora, find solutions to bridge the gap between client expectation and policy coverage limitations, contribute to policy formation discussions etc.

Women who work with dedication and discipline, show willingness to learn, who want to accept challenging assignments, have a vision to take the company forward, should be motivated and suitably rewarded by giving them timely promotions and appropriate postings. At the same time, such women should be morally supported through the rough periods of their lives.

One disadvantage that  career women in India generally face, as opposed to men, is lack of opportunity for networking. Since in majority of cases, the woman has to manage the home as well, she is duty bound to return home after office hours to take care of household duties, leaving no time for her to sit around with male colleagues to learn about the opportunities in the market or even just to get the grape-vine of the industry. Mentors can help the woman employee overcome this handicap by keeping her well informed of developments in the industry. Of course now, with a lot of information available on-line, the woman does have ready access to information, but personal interaction with seniors outside office confines, is also required, so that seniors are able to assess the woman’s personality and her aptitude for more responsible positions.

Professional rivalry exists in all fields. However, where women do race ahead in their careers compared to their male batch-mates, it is not uncommon to hear snide remarks that attribute her quick promotion to a god-father coupled with romantic links or to the influential position held by her husband, father or brother. Rarely have I heard men, or for that matter, even women, give the woman credit for promotion, on her merit. Why do women not support their women colleagues– mainly due to jealousy or professional rivalry. It is not without reason that it is said “ Women are a woman’s worst enemy”.

Women Leaders

Personally, I feel women are born leaders- the efficiency with which they manage the house and family members, bears testimony to that quality. In almost all homes, the woman ensures that food is served for every meal, clothes and linen are regularly washed, ironed, stacked or hung in cupboards, children’s homework, playtime, sleep time are closely monitored, all gadgets required for daily use are in working condition, all groceries are replenished in time, maids including their tantrums are managed to ensure that the house remains spic and span at all times. If she can manage a house efficiently, so also she can manage the different departments and human resource of an organization. All she needs is an enabling environment where her inherent qualities are allowed to blossom, not repressed.

Ultimately it is as Chandro Tomar, the 87 year old UP sharpshooter said “ Ladkiyon ko mauka toh dau apni kaabbiliyat dikhane ka”.  



  • Dr. Kishor Dere

    Thank you very much Asha Nair madam for minutely analysing challenges to emergence of female leadership in Indian corporate sector. You are absolutely right in arguing that there should be Equal opportunity in recruitment, promotions, selection for challenging job profiles, foreign postings and consideration of
    interruptions in career progression due to motherhood. Patriarchal and misogynist attitudes must be changed.

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