India’s most male-dominated businesses are finally adding more women in the C-suite

Getting to the top.
Getting to the top.
Image: Reuters/Mark Blinch
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A 120-year-old Indian conglomerate is turning the tide.

The Mumbai-based $4.6 billion Godrej Group recently appointed a woman to lead its consumer products division, hitherto steered by men.

Nisaba Godrej, 38, executive director of the Rs5,088 crore Godrej Consumer Products (GCPL), was named its executive chairperson, a company release (pdf) said on May 09. She will take over from her father, Adi Godrej, who will now be chairman emeritus of the overall group which has interests in businesses spanning real estate to hair colour.

The company’s CEO and MD, Vivek Gambhir, will report to Nisaba who holds a MBA from Harvard Business School. Nisaba has worked across functions such as product design and human resources within the group and has spent a decade working at GCPL.

The recent generational change at Godrej Group is reflective of similar developments at many of India’s old family-run businesses. At many of these conglomerates, daughters and sons of promoters have been handed critical leadership roles. The Godrej heirs themselves have been groomed for a long time. Nisaba’s elder sister Tanya, for instance, is the group’s chief brand officer.

Nisaba’s new role at GCPL is welcome news for various other reasons. It gives more visibility to women management leaders in a country where only a handful of them are in charge at large Indian companies—mostly in the banking and finance industry. Only 7.7% of the board seats in all of India’s listed companies are held by women, according to a report by Deloitte (pdf). Of these, only 2.7% of corporate boards are chaired by women.

India’s $49 billion fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) sector, with women and children as its key consumers, rarely had one till of late. An exception is Vinita Bali, former CEO at Bengaluru-based food company Britannia, who rose through the ranks to assume the top role in 2005.

Women managers have traditionally been considered physically unfit for the sector possibly because it involves spending a lot of time on the field to handle manfacturing, distribution, and marketing.

But change is afoot now.

Last July, Coca-Cola India appointed its first-ever female CFO, Sarvita Sethi. At beverage maker PepsiCo India, Deepika Warrier is the vice-president for the company’s nutrition category. Hindustan Unilever, the country’s largest consumer goods maker, has two women in its executive team. Geetu Verma heads its foods division and Priya Nair is executive director of its home care business. Marico India’s chief marketing officer is Anuradha Aggarwal. Nestle India has a woman in its management committee and two on its board of directors. Godrej Group itself recently appointed former Starbucks India CEO Avani Davda to head its gourmet retail business.

For women managers of India, the day has just begun it seems.