When life gifts you roses, the world judges you by how you bear with thorns. Having gone through her own trials by fire, each one of India’s most illustrious women leaders from the world of business and economy makes the cut for Fortune India’s 50 Most Powerful Women in Business.

How power is deployed acquired a whole new dimension in 2020-21 — a year like no other.

We adapted accordingly. The coveted MPW rarely steps into the murky world of politics. After all, power is a politician’s first name, giving an undue advantage in a power ranking right from the start.

But one career politician emerged from the shadows of her illustrious predecessor to stamp an indelible mark on the Indian economy. Hand-picked by prime minister Narendra Modi to lead the finance ministry after FM Arun Jaitley opted out in May 2019 due to poor health, few gave Nirmala Sitharaman any chance of succeeding. Let alone guiding India through the most treacherous phase to what now looks like a launch pad for a multi-year growth era.

Sitharaman tells us, piloting the world’s sixth-largest economy through the Covid shock was the toughest phase of her studded career: minister of state in finance ministry and corporate affairs ministry (May 2014-November 2014), minister of state (independent charge) in commerce ministry (May 2014-September 2017), defence minister (September 2017 to end-May 2019). Not to mention the critical role as BJP spokesperson in its comeback campaign in 2014.

Both “lives and livelihoods” had to be taken care of, she says, recollecting the early days of the lockdown. “We do not want anyone to remain hungry,” Sitharaman assured the needy in her first appearance post lockdown. The raft of initiatives for 80 crore Indians, crores of MSMEs, banks, NBFCs, farmers and women and elderly tilted the jury in favour of Sitharaman as India’s Most Powerful Woman 2021.

What differentiates the Fortune India ranking from others? First, it’s the only ‘ranking’, as opposed to a host of listings. Second, Fortune India accords enormous significance not just to power but also the use of power, with 40% of the weightage going to use of power at her disposal for greater good.

While this extensive coverage encapsulates the journey of the Top 50 through 2020-21, there are other gems worth a read. In ‘India Inc’s Unconscious Bias’, Ajita Shashidhar traces why corporate India has so few women in leadership roles and whether companies are doing enough to groom women for top slots.

That has to do with corporate India’s structural dissonance. Unlike male executives, India Inc. doesn’t catch ‘em young. Only 27% women are given leadership roles in middle management as opposed to 73% men. The percentage dips further at senior levels to 21% women, says DDI India, a global HR consulting firm. Only 42% women leaders in 1,700 companies got P&L roles. As a result, a majority are never ready for the C-Suite.

In “A Boardroom Win,” V. Keshavdev explores how seriously have company boards taken to women leadership.

Our special gratitude to the eight-member jury that painstakingly applied its diverse experience to each of the women leaders before arriving at the ranking.

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