MURUGAPPA GROUP - THE FIGHT FOR GENDER EQUALITY

about 11 months ago
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Have you heard of Valli Arunachalam? Most likely not. She is neither a Deepika nor a Mamata Banerjee, yet the fight she is fighting will have far reaching consequences for the ‘daughters’ of CEOs across India. Valli brings to light the patriarchal  society we live in while we talk tall about gender equality – the hypocrisy is illuminating.

No, this is not some feminist kind of raving and ranting; the idea is to bring to light what Valli is exactly fighting for.

Well, to begin at the beginning – Valli Arunachalam is the daughter of late MV Murugappan; the family owned  120-year-old South India-based group that has business interests ranging from auto components to sugar to financial services.

Murugappan has two daughters, no sons and that has created a piquant scenario. As per the will, everything was bequeathed to his wife and the two daughters. The big bone of contention is over the holding company – Ambadi Investments, controlling the Rs.37,000 crore revenue group.

Murugappan wished that the mother and daughters offer back their total 8% stake in the holding company to the other family members that co-own Ambadi. They did respect the father’s wish and offered their stake back but strangely, the family is not buying, citing lack of funds as the reason. The family has asked the mother and daughters to keep the shares and collect the dividend.

Not happy about this, seeking more parity, Valli, in August’19, asked for a board representation as they too are family and have stake in Ambadi; all the other family members have a representative on the Board of the holding company. And that too has not happened with wishy-washy delay tactics being used to ensure they do not get a seat on the Board.

Rarely have women found representation on this Board; it is entirely male dominated and thus Valli is seeking equality and as per the family history, it seems simply undoable. Legally, she has no grounds to demand representation as such seats are not inherited. But Valli’s contention is that when other family members have automatically got seats when their father passed away, why are they being treated differently? Only because they are daughters? Valli’s fight is about why female members cannot be inducted into the Board the same way a male heir is?

Thus in that context Valli’s fight is important – she is seeking to correct a very deep rooted gender bias. In many family owned business, this dominance of male heirs exists and the outcome of this fight of Valli could become the benchmark for others seeking justice.

Gender bias or not, the stake of these three women is valued at over Rs.1500 crore. A Board seat will surely give this branch of the family, a visibility. But after that? With a hostile Board, surely she cannot achieve much, except maybe convince them to buy their 8% stake.

Surely Valli knows her limited options and the vagaries of getting into a long drawn legal battle where only the lawyers will make more money. Yet, from the perspective of gender equality, this fight is worth it.

So is it only on the surface that we see ‘equality’ while on the inside, the corporate world remains completely male dominated? That is sadly the truth….

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