The World Economic Forum says that at the current rate of change, it will take 108 years to close the overall gender gap and 202 years to bring parity in the workplace. India has one of the lowest female labour force participation rates in the world and a majority of women work in the informal sector. Even though there are more women graduates, the number of those joining the corporate sector and rising to the top remains abysmally low.

A close look at this year’s Fortune India 500 list reveals how acute the problem is. Just 29 companies this year’s list have women leaders with executive powers. The list of women heading some of India’s largest corporations includes Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, chairperson and managing director, Biocon, No. 243 on the list; Kaku Nakhate, president and country head, India, Bank of America (BofA), which is at No. 370; and Meher Pudumjee of Thermax, which is at No. 240. Renu Sud Karnad, managing director of HDFC Ltd, which is at No.16 on the Fortune India 500 list, says when it comes to leadership positions, the numbers tilt against women for various factors—one reason being women’s role as primary caregivers in the family, which often makes them leave their careers midway.

“One major challenge that women always face is ‘work-life balance’. Those who can achieve the right balance will succeed... The balancing act between family and work leaves women with almost no time to socialise professionally. Effective networking is a necessity for a good leader,” she says.

There are some sectors that have seen a significant number of women leaders in recent years. Take banking and insurance. This year, apart from BofA and HDFC, there are several other companies in the sector headed by women, like Corporation Bank (No. 86), which has P.V. Bharathi as its MD and CEO; and Indian Bank (No. 73) where Padmaja Chunduruis MD and CEO.

In the past two-three years, some have retired, or have stepped down for various reasons. Former State Bank of India (No. 4) chairman Arundhati Bhattacharya ended her tenure in October 2017. Another big name is Alice Vaid-yan, chairman and MD of General Insurance Corporation of India (No. 39), who finished her term this July. Chanda Kochhar had to resign as MD and CEO of ICICI Bank (No. 12) over allegations of conflict of interest in October 2018. Shikha Sharma, who had been heading Axis Bank (No. 27) since 2009, stepped down as MD and CEO in December 2018. The Reserve Bank of India had raised questions about her being considered for a fourth term.

Yet, in terms of women fit to lead, banking has bench strength, says Naina Lal Kidwai, former group general manager and country head, HSBC India (No. 127). “ICICI has a rich tradition of women in senior roles,” she says, adding this is the case in the public sector as well. Sectors like energy, oil and gas, real estate, auto, and infrastructure remain dominated by men. None of the top 10 companies on the list are headed by women. However, Nishi Vasudeva headed state-owned oil refiner Hindustan Petroleum Corporation (HPCL) between 2014 and 2016. HPCL was a Fortune India 500 company before ONGC bought out the government’s 51.11% stake last year.

The trend is, however, not limited to India. In this year’s Fortune 500 list, a record 33companies on the index of the highest-grossing firms in the U.S. were led by female CEOs, as of June 1. However, Fortune reported, “That sum represents a disproportionately small share of the group as a whole; just 6.6%. But it also marks a considerable jump from last year’s total of 24, or 4.8%.” Predictably, in the Fortune global list, which ranks the world’s largest companies, the number was even smaller—14, or just 2.8% of the total. No Indian company with a woman CEO was on the list.

Of the women who join the corporate sector, experts say, the number further diminish-es at the mid- and upper-management levels.

Karnad says women need both familial and organisational support to reach the upper echelons of management in India’s corporate sector.

“Organisations should have a conducive environment at the workplace with supportive policies, viz., maternity and paternity benefits, flexible career options, effective policies on sexual harassment of women at the work-place, etc.,” she says. “Identifying and training women leaders from an early age will lead to more women in leadership positions. Lack of women in leadership positions means that female talent is being under-used.”

Most women leaders earn a lot less than their male counterparts. On this year’s list(based on FY19 data), when the remunerations of top executives were analysed, we found that the highest paid among them are primarily men.

The list of this year’s 50 highest-paid top executives is led by Vinod K. Dasari, who as MD and CEO of Ashok Leyland (No. 49), who took home ₹131.21 crore in FY19, almost six times his previous year’s salary (on account of him exercising his stock options after he stepped down in March). Ravi Jhunjhunwala, chairman, CEO, and MD of HEG (No. 206), comes in second with ₹121.21 crore.

They are followed by executive chairmanKalanithi Maran and his wife, executive director Kavery Kalanithi, of Sun TV Network (No.314). Both were paid ₹87.5 crore each in FY19. She is the only woman on the list.

The list of highest paid women executives at the helm is headed by Arathi Krishna, MDof Sundram Fasteners (No. 285), who made ₹18.32 crore in FY19 (the list excludes KaveryKalanithi). She is followed by her sister and joint MD, Arundathi Krishna, who made ₹18.16 crore. Karnad of HDFC is third with ₹12.36 crore. Their remuneration is inclusive of salary, bonus/commission, perquisites, other remunerations, and stock options, wherever applicable.

Kidwai says company boards could devise initiatives to help women reach the top.“Boards can be a lot more gender sensitive,” she says. Members of the board could ensure that while making lists of contenders for the top job, at least one woman is picked. “If you are looking at three or four people, it is not difficult to have one woman and then pick the best,” she says.

Kidwai says this method has to be applied while picking candidates for other leadership positions as well. “This will encourage the management to find talent and groom that talent to reach the top,” Kidwai says.

(This story was originally published in the December-March issue of the magazine.)

This was originally published in the December 15-March 14 special issue of the magazine.

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