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The role of women in the mutual fund industry

India has just 32 women fund managers, a tiny 8% of the fund manager force in the country

While industry leaders speak, all levels of their women employees are seeing the writing on the wall about their careers and family lives (iStockphoto)

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I don’t know if this happens to you but sometimes, when I read a truncated news report, it leaves me with forehead furrowed and chin resting in my hand, the way you are supposed to while standing in front of a famous but mystifying modern painting in a museum. In the same way you wish then that you had someone in your ear who could explain what the painter was thinking, I start wishing I had the reporter’s number to check what actually happened. I started yearning for that thing called context. Just a little bit, please.

Recently, I read a piece which led to that furrowed brow and a deep, deep thirst for context. The piece had highlights from a panel discussion at a recent mutual fund summit. Nilesh Shah, managing director, Kotak Mahindra Asset Management Company (AMC), said the first confusing thing in this report. He said, “I get 100 salary. 43 is taken away by government straight. So I am left with 57. To secure my future, I give 10 in NPS and 10 in provident fund. Effectively, 37 comes to my hand of which SEBI takes over 20 by skin in the game circular. And I give 17 to Parul Shah. As long as she manages my house in 17, I can work in Kotak Mutual Fund.”

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At first, I giggled a little at the actual amount of Nilesh Shah’s “take home”, the amount 17 represents here, the mere 17 with which he can work in Kotak Mutual Fund, without which the Shah household would apparently be unable to pay its bills.

After giggling, I double-checked. Yes, in this instance, Nilesh Shah was not giving advice about managing money or mutual funds but about working in the mutual fund industry. The report continues: He pointed out that the mutual fund industry’s talent retention will depend a lot upon spouses and how they manage household expenses. “So as long as we have women like Parul Shah, I am sure there will be talent in mutual fund industry. The day we miss that, I don’t know what will happen.”

So wait, this is like an HR-type tip? For people to work in the mutual fund business, they need to have spouses (read: wives) who run their household frugally? Given that Nilesh Shah (and a few other senior executives of Kotak AMC) were fined by the Securities and Exchange Board of India earlier to the tune of 1.6 crore for flouting mutual fund regulations when they decided to invest in the fixed maturity plans of Essel Group companies, maybe Parul Shah should be running the mutual fund business? I don’t know.

What I do know is that if Parul Shah or any other Parul joined the asset management industry in India, it would be a huge event. Because, according to the latest Morningstar Investment Adviser India report, India has 32 women fund managers (up two from last year), a tiny 8% of the fund manager force in the country.

In some ways, I appreciate Nilesh Shah for making even the rhetorical statement (let us not confuse panel discussions with truth-telling) that we can only live, thrive and work in our capitalist world with the intense support of our friends and family. Too often, men are brought up to be broadly sentimental and teary-eyed about the labour of their mothers and wives, without any comprehension of the specifics. Recently, an acquaintance, who has been running her household, looking after schoolchildren and ageing parents through the pandemic and bouts of complex illness, was told by her husband that she “hasn’t worked in years”. The wildfire of rage, the conflagration of consternation, this provoked in her and her circle of friends is still burning.

Meanwhile, the article continues. Next is a quote from Radhika Gupta, the MD and CEO of Edelweiss AMC. Gupta had a child some months ago. A woman CEO with a young child is such a rare phenomenon in India that whole articles were published in the business papers about Gupta’s baby. (One article mentioned good wishes from Nilesh Shah and Nasscom president Debjani Ghosh in the headline, giving me that warm 1980s Filmfare vibe).

Back to the panel discussion. Gupta said, “I am still supposed to be on maternity leave because the government rule is six months and my son is five months. I started working after six weeks, because I love this industry and that’s the respect it gives you.” Again, if you take this quote at face value, Gupta loves her job and wanted to come back to work. The respect part? What did you get out of it? I got that even if you are a CEO, as a woman you should come back to work as soon as possible, else who knows what will happen to the respect situation. Again, not a great talent retention tip if the top leadership doesn’t encourage employees to take the parenting leave they are entitled to. 

Does Gupta have lots of paid and unpaid support to look after her young child? Is the other parent of her child somewhat/a lot involved in childcare? We hear nothing about either.

Obviously, no one remembers the Supreme Court’s recent observation that “it is a matter of harsh reality that despite such [maternity leave] provisions women are compelled to leave their place of work on the birth of a child, since they are not granted leave and other facilitative measures… Childbirth has to be construed in the context of employment as a natural aspect of the life of the working women. Hence, the provision which has been made should be construed in that perspective.”

What I do remember is that in large companies. like Kotak AMC and Edelweiss AMC, women staff are not just the stray fund manager. When Shah and Gupta speak, all levels of their women employees are seeing the writing on the wall about their careers and family lives.

Perhaps one should treat this short report as an art installation. An art installation about the literal room where the panel discussion happened and the metaphorical room in which corporate bosses deploy family life to make “relatable” anecdotes for the rank and file present. About being the exemplary man with a frugal wife who supports his career, about being the exemplary woman trying to find the right language which doesn’t shame her for putting career first or for having a child. I am here being exemplary wishing I had an old Filmfare to read.

Also read: Stop, did anyone ask you for your helpful advice?

Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.

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