First there is the news that Flight Lieutenant Shivangi Singh is set to become India's first woman fighter pilot to fly the Rafale aircraft that was formally inducted into the Indian Air Force on September 10. And two days ago, there was the news of a 82-year-old who is known as 'Dadi of Shaheen Bagh’ making it to the TIME magazine 100 Most Influential list.
Suddenly, there is this feeling that women are indeed breaking all the glass ceilings. But before we start congratulating ourselves on taking giant strides in gender equality, lets be realistic and understand that this is yet to happen, beyond the headlines, it’s the male bastion which continues to dominate, especially in the Board room of Indian companies.
This week we were quite disappointed to see that an overwhelming 91.36% of the shareholders of the Murugappa Group voting against giving a board seat for Valli Arunachalam in the holding company, Ambadi Investments (AIL), the daughter of the former executive chairman MV Murugappan.
But then again, how many of us have really even heard of Valli Arunachalam? Most likely, nit many. She is neither a Deepika nor a Rhea, 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. They did agree to allow her Board nomination but never appointed her in the interim and asked her to wait for the next AGM, which was then almost 9 moths away. And when the AGM happened, the Board made it very clear that she has no place 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….