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Female executives a rarity in India

| Wednesday, June 18, 2014, 5:27 p.m.

NEW DELHI — When corporate headhunter Uday Chawla meets with his peers these days, the talk is mostly about finding women — and the competition is fierce.

That, he says, is because Indian companies are frantically scrambling to meet a new legal requirement that they have at least one woman on their boards by October, and the shortage of qualified women is staggering.

Everybody has a secret list of senior female professionals in other companies and retired female bureaucrats whom they are wooing, said Chawla, the managing partner in the executive search firm Transearch India.

“The general chatter is, ‘How many women's names do you have on your list?' and, ‘So-and-so is already taken,' ” he said. “There is a lot of pressure now because of the deadline.”

India passed a law last year aimed at modernizing its corporations and making them socially responsible. Having a diverse board of directors is a key element of the law, reflecting a significant shift in attitudes toward working women that coincides with a wave of unprecedented anger over the perceived lack of public safety.

The move to raise women's corporate profile also signals a push by Indian businesses to adopt practices well established in the West. In the past two decades, more and more international companies have come here, and Indian companies, particularly in the IT industry, have expanded globally. For corporate boards, diversity and independence are the new buzzwords.

About two-thirds of publicly traded Indian companies — 922 of 1,462 — do not have a single woman on their boards, according to a joint survey conducted this year by the National Stock Exchange and Prime Database, a capital market data firm. Many are the country's blue-chip firms.

For too long, Chawla said, corporate boardrooms in India have operated like “old boys' networks.”

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