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BW Businessworld

Women: Fairer, But Not Richer

Women make up only 6.5 per cent of the list of the rich in India, of whom only 1.62 per cent are in leadership roles

Photo Credit : Subhabrata Das

The richest man in the world is Bill Gates (61 years) with a net worth of $75 billion. The richest woman in the world is Liliane Bettencourt (94 years), with a net worth that is almost half at $36.1 billion. The trend is worse in India. The richest man in India is Mukesh Ambani (59 years), with a net worth of $22.7 billion. The net worth of the richest woman, Savitri Jindal (66 years) is $5.3 billion, or less than a quarter of her male counterpart in the hall of fame of the rich.

IIFL Wealth and Asset Management came up with a list of 494 high net worth individuals (HNI) who were promoters of listed companies (not counting those in public sector undertakings and multinational corporations) who have a listed wealth of Rs 100 crore or more. Merely 32 women, or 6.5 per cent of the list of the rich were promoters, of whom a minuscule 1.62 per cent played an active leadership role in their enterprises.

Only eight women in India play an active role in the business entities they derive their wealth from. The financial services firm, defines “active roles” of promoters as those of chairpersons, managing directors or directors of corporate entities. The remaining 24 women promoters in the affluent club of 32, were merely “white labelling”.

Most high net worth individuals among women come from moneyed families and have inherited the wealth either by birth or through marriage. The only exception to the rule in the current list is Biocon Limited’s chairperson and managing director, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw. Less than five per cent of women investors figure in the Indian Angel Network, which is among the largest angel networks in the world.

Many women are in leadership roles in the financial sector, notably, State Bank of India chairperson and managing director Arundhati Bhattacharya, Axis Bank managing director and CEO Shikha Sharma, venture capitalist Vani Kola and Indian Angel Network president, Padmaja Ruparel – but a list of the rich is obviously made up of promoters rather than professionals.

Business journalist and director of careers at Vedica Scholars Programme, Shreyasi Singh, has in her book, The Wealth Wallahs, interviewed more than a hundred HNIs with an investible wealth of over $5 million. She says less than 10 per cent of these HNIs comprise women. “The focus of my book was on first-generation wealth creators: most of them became wealthy either due to their corporate salaries or by the equity they own in their companies,” says Singh. “As someone who is passionate about professional women’s issues, I find it rather upsetting that I couldn’t have fair gender representation in my book,” she says, adding, “but it’s just so difficult to find HNI who are women.”

One reason women were not visible on ‘rich lists’, could be their reluctance to flaunt their wealth, admits Singh. “Perhaps it’s social conditioning, but I found it very hard to convince women to speak about their wealth for my research when I was writing the book,” she says, adding, “Women were more hesitant to reveal or publicise their wealth. It may be a reason you don’t see as many on published lists of the wealthy.”

There must, of course, be graver reasons why wealth evades women in times when they have been able to break through the glass ceiling of most male preserves. Women leaders provide clues to some of these reasons. Anu Aga, a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha and director of Thermax, is one of the richest women in India with a 62 per cent stake in the energy company. “In the financial sector, there are several organisations headed by women. However, they are professionals and not owners. In family owned businesses, very few women are allowed or encouraged to head organisations,” says Aga.

She points out that society perpetuates the stereotype that men should focus on building wealth and women on improving their physical appearances. “Wealth creation and ownership is still perceived as a man’s domain,” Aga says. She points out that the age-old prejudice against women’s leadership abilities persists. “Even the shares of many family-owned companies are not allowed to women members. This is a reflection of the persisting bias against women,” she says.
Harvard Business Review (HBR) conducted a survey of 7,280 leaders in “the most successful organisations in the world both public and private, government and commercial”. The journal reported that “at every level, more women were rated by their peers, their bosses, their direct reports, and their other associates as better overall leaders than their male counterparts.” Even so, they often earn less than men in equivalent positions.

A 2016 study by Korn Ferry Hay Group says that women did not have pay parity with men even in India. The prejudice is so deeply entrenched that even women prefer male bosses to female bosses. A 2015 survey reports that 66 per cent prefer a male boss and as much as 79 per cent of female respondents prefer a male boss to a female one.

“There is an absence of women from the upper echelons, the C-suite (CEO), the senior management positions with big pay packets which would land them on such rich lists,” says Singh. “Go to any corporation’s website and look at the board member profiles, you will see very few women appearing,” she goes on to say. “Hopefully,” she says, “there is an increase in entrepreneurial activity by women in the kind of technology and internet companies that lend themselves to wealth creation.”

Shaikh Mohammed Bin Essa Al Khalifa, a driving force behind the startup revolution in the Arab world, says that in some of the entrepreneurial programmes set up under his guidance, equal numbers of men and women were registering new businesses. But, he says it’s about allowing people a choice. “My wife has a master’s in theoretical physics from Oxford. I will be the first to say she is smarter than I am. It was her decision to stay at home and raise a family, and pursue further education in teaching. The question is, is it wrong to do this?”

Anu Aga has repeatedly said in interviews that she was more interested in human capital than financial capital. She retired from chairing the family business in 2004 to focus more deeply on philanthropic and social work for Thermax, which she is passionate about. “In a country like India where even a woman’s survival is at stake (remember, female infanticide is prevalent in several regions), creating more rich women and listing them is not a priority,” says Aga.

“It is not just in business, but in every critical area – education or health – women are discriminated against,” she goes on to say, adding, “They are considered a burden. So, the absence from ‘rich lists’ only goes to show women have limited access to yet another area of accomplishment.”

“I’m hoping we will see more professional self-made first generational women reach these lists in the next five to six years with more women starting and running their own businesses,” says the author of The Wealth Wallahs, “Let’s keep the momentum going here!”