How India’s largest private bank fosters gender equality

ICICI Bank managing director and CEO Chanda Kochhar talks about the future of women in India and how the company is seeking to ensure its female employees thrive.

Chanda Kochhar, managing director and CEO of India’s largest private bank, ICICI, sees promising changes in Indian society toward supporting women’s efforts to be more economically and socially independent. At her company, she is pushing to recognize unconscious bias that can hinder women’s progress, being more inclusive in decision making, and providing flexible work options. In this interview with McKinsey’s Anu Madgavkar, Kochhar explains why she believes encouraging these steps is good not only for the company but also for the economy and society at large. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.

Interview transcript

I’m very optimistic about the future of women in India. First, because I think the approach of the society itself there is changing. Not just in urban India or organized India; even if I look at rural India, I see the kind of progress that, say, the self-help movement has made, which has made women independent and self-confident both economically and even thought process–wise. The whole societal approach is changing. Second, the approach of the organizations, of course, is changing. The third is that, clearly, we have girls and women in India who are very smart, very capable, and very intelligent.

The economic case for gender equality

Gender parity is no longer just a nice-to-have part of your organization or your business. I think there’s a huge business and economic case for having as many women in the organization as men—lots of reasons for it. One, of course, is that in countries like India, women make up more than 48 percent of the population. So, in a way, almost half the talent pool is women, and how can a nation or an organization grow and prosper if you ignore 50 percent of the talent pool in the country?

The second is that as economies are evolving, women are becoming a very important part of the customer base itself. So, again, as you design your businesses, your products, your services, how can you get a better understanding of that 50 percent of your customer base if you do not have a similar mind-set in your decision making?

And finally, diversity in the employee base is very important for very comprehensive decision making. Whenever you make a decision and you have diversity in the people who are making decisions, you make decisions in a much more comprehensive manner.

Making strides in India

India has made a lot of progress in the last few years that I have seen in my working life. When I started work 32 years ago, there were, clearly, very few organizations that you would feel comfortable even joining, because you just believed that many organizations weren’t even close to the idea of recruiting a lot of women. From there on, we’ve come to a stage where organizations very actively want to recruit women.

But I think what is still a constraint starts from this whole concept of education itself. We’ve seen in India, when you look at the overall numbers, for every 100 girls that even enroll for education, just about 47 or so reach the high-school level. And then when you talk of graduation and postgraduation, the number drops to maybe 15, 16. And then not just that, it’s also believed that, even out of the workforce-ready women, about 75 to 78 percent do not join the organized workforce. So you just see that the funnel keeps narrowing. And that’s where you have less and less women, first of all, participating in the economic activity.

Second, where we tend to lose women more is during those life-stage needs. Clearly, when the woman is starting a family, her requirements are very unique. So, for example, again, at ICICI, we do have the simpler things like, if required, the ability to work from home a little bit, some flexible work hours. And, of course, generous rules around leave, et cetera, at that time.

But we also ensure that women who go on maternity leave don’t lose their tenure. That year actually gets counted for them in every which way, whether it’s for their work experience or their performance rating and so on and so forth. I think you have to be conscious to see that women don’t lose out at that time.

Recognizing unconscious bias

The biggest responsibility for an organization is to make sure that the work environment is neutral. Because that itself, in a way, affects the mind-sets of women. If women believe that the work environment is such that they will get rewarded for their performance, that they will get the responsibilities and jobs based on their potential and capability, and that they won’t be distinguished by whether they are male or female, that itself brings that strong mind-set for women to continue to perform.

What’s also important for organizations, which I keep in mind all the time, is to keep checking to ensure that unconscious biases don’t sneak in. While we all believe and want to be merit based and make all the efforts to be gender neutral, sometimes there are unconscious biases, for example, when you recruit your incoming staff or as you look at newer responsibilities or promotions. When you finally have to choose between a male and a female, do you actually tend to choose a male, everything else being equal? We have to keep reminding ourselves to very consciously get rid of these unconscious biases.

About the author(s)

Chanda Kochhar is the managing director and CEO of ICICI Bank. Anu Madgavkar is a principal at the McKinsey Global Institute and is based in McKinsey’s Mumbai office.

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