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 the region.

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 and talent.