Asia Inc Oct 1994
INTERVIEW: Tarjani Vakil, head, EximBank of India
Female Force: Tarjani Vakil, Chairperson And Managing Director, ExIm Bank
In a field of conservative, gray-suited men, Tarjani Vakil stands out both
for her brilliantly hued saris and as the highest-ranking woman banker in
Asia. She is the chairperson of Bombay-based Exim Bank, which handles foreign
trade, export marketing and consulting. It has earned continuous applause
from international financial journals for excellent performance and profitability.
Vakil, 57, is conscious of her image as a role model for young women managers.
She spoke recently at an international conference in Baroda, India, and later
with Asia, Inc.'s Salil Tripathi, on women's role in wealth generation:
The major challenge before corporate Asia is a shift in mind-set that can
usher in true equality for women. There is absolutely no doubt that women's
potential as managers and professional workers is being underutilized in
In Asia, female participation in the work force varies from 11 percent in
Pakistan to 47 percent in Thailand and Vietnam. The undercounting of our
contribution -- by excluding household work from national accounting systems
-- continues. While political gains have been significant and educational
opportunities expanded, they aren't enough.
Despite equal-pay legislation in many countries, differentials persist. The
female-to-male wage ratio varies from 70 percent in the U.S. and Sweden to
51 percent in Japan and less than that in many Asian countries. And women's
representation in administrative and managerial positions is pitiful -- as
low as 0.8 percent throughout the 1980s in the Philippines, despite a woman
president, and 1.5 percent in Sri Lanka even though it was the first country
to elect a woman prime minister.
Ironically, several Asian countries -- including India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka,
Bangladesh and the Philippines -- have been led by women. But the ground-level
reality is far different. In 1991 only 20 percent of management positions
in Hong Kong were held by women. That figure was much worse for Malaysia
(12 percent) and Japan (3 percent).
The greatest change in the global economy is the shift from the manufacturing
sector to the service sector. The latter now accounts for as much as 65 percent
of gross domestic product in developed countries and up to 55 percent in
the countries of South and East Asia. That's good news for women. The service
sector generally has been more women-friendly. Gender-branding increasingly
is becoming an anachronism.
But even as women transcend stereotypical images, male managers' attitudes
tend to be gender-biased. A masculine management style by women is construed
as "aggressive" while the adoption of an interactive style is viewed as "ineffective."
At Exim Bank, half the officers are women. It has been rated by Euromoney
magazine on several occasions as one of the top Asian banks for productivity
in terms of profit per employee. Surely that would not have happened if women
managers were nurturers, emotional, unassertive or irrational. Sometimes
I feel like a Sherpa climbing Mount Everest to clear a path for upward mobility.
Some companies now support working women with facilities like day-care centers,
flexi-time and maternity and paternity benefits. Yet much more needs to be
done. The examples of Singapore and Malaysia come to mind. These countries
offer tax deductions and rebates according to the number of children. In
fact Singapore's tax laws favor college-educated working mothers.
A 1993 United Nations human development report points out that no country
in the world treats its women as well as its men. However, no one should
take solace from the fact that this is a global phenomenon. Societies in
the new world order cannot afford to ignore 50 percent of their human capital