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Wanted: Only female CXOs – The Economic Times

Mumbai: Large local companies and multinationals in India have intensified their search for senior women professionals to fill in top management roles. Several of them have put out mandates to look exclusively for female candidates for the CFO, COO, CHRO, CMO, CTO and CLO roles, and the much-coveted corner office of the CEO, top officials from executive search firms and board members told ET.

This new wave is driven by a thrust on the environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards and a huge push from company boards to improve diversity at the CXO level. It is also fuelled by growing preference of investors to allocate capital in companies that not only generate financial returns, but are also invested in social good where gender diversity is a major agenda, said top officials.

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“In nearly 30% of our CXO mandates, it is imperative to identify and hire a woman professional,” said Atul Vohra, managing partner at leadership search firm Transearch India. “In 50-60% of the searches, the preference is for hiring a female candidate given all factors are equal on merit.”

Jyoti Bowen Nath, managing partner at executive search firm Claricent Partners, said: “There is a huge preference for having women candidates in top jobs and more so in the coveted corner room. More than 50% of C-suite mandates come with a strong preference for women in top roles.”

While there are mandates for “only women CXO candidates”, one has to read between the lines and understand that the selection criterion has to be merit and not just the diversity factor, she said.

Bajaj Electricals chairman Shekhar Bajaj said women have been contributing substantially to organisational growth and board wisdom. “It is important that hiring women at leadership roles be made mandatory because there is an unconscious bias to hire men,” he added.

“In the last one year, there could have been 3-4 C-suite mandates with a strong preference and in some cases a must-have to select a woman candidate,” said Nath of Claricent Partners.

“While the representation could be a mix of both sexes at our end, selection would lean more towards a woman,” she added.

Nath explains: “In a few cases, while the woman leader is good but one can’t really tick all the boxes in terms of our assessment parameters, our clients have preferred to take the leap of faith and go ahead (with the female candidate) provided they are convinced about the person’s ability to deliver results.”

“Companies want a high ESG score and gender diversity is a big piece in it,” said Vohra.

Such moves are more pronounced in the contemporary sectors such as technology, consumer, consumer–tech businesses, fashion and luxury and startups.

However, in recent times progressive companies in traditional sectors such as manufacturing are also seeking women in top jobs.

Officials said this is delaying search closure times as the pool of senior female professionals is limited.

“A search that could typically be completed in 6-7 weeks is now taking 12-15 weeks, depending on availability of a female candidate,” said Vohra. “We have to look harder, dig deeper because in some roles such as CFO, (only) a handful of candidates are available … This is also pushing up compensation.”

The CEO of a leading institutional investment firm said unless there is pressure to hire women, the male dominance in corporates will continue. “I agree there is a shortage of women in leadership roles but that is the responsibility of corporates to nurture and build a strong pipeline of women leaders. It makes good business sense and should not be seen as just an ESR ticker.”

However, Meleveetil Damodaran, chairperson of Excellence Enablers that offers consultancy services and training programmes to company boards, also stressed that talent should be the primary criterion to select a CXO. “This is an extreme position for companies to take. Diversity and Inclusion are doubtless very important. That should not translate to the universe for selection of key persons being shrunk to having only women candidates. Talent should triumph over tokenism which does injustice to genuinely accomplished women,” Damodaran said.

Recent times have seen several senior female professionals in top P&L/CXO roles including the likes of Suman Hegde, CFO, Jubilant Foodworks; Geetika Mehta, MD, Nivea India; Ipsita Dasgupta, SVP and MD, HP India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka; and Aparna Iyer, CFO, Wipro.

Bajaj is of the view that there should be more women on boards too.

“Corporates tend to just focus on the right candidate and usually choose men. Women bring so much depth and a diverse point of view to boardroom discussions that companies would be foolish to just stick to mandatory requirements of having one woman director,” he said.

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