‘A diverse workforce ensures you have the best talent’I feel a gender-equal world is one where gender is not a consideration in any form or fashion, and we are still some way away from that goal.
A little over three decades ago, Zarin Daruwala first stepped into the banking and finance world as a management trainee at Indian multinational ICICI, now ICICI Bank. A certified chartered accountant, Daruwala spent over 26 years at the bank and held various leadership positions within the ICICI group of companies. Today, she is the chairperson of Standard Chartered Bank Nepal and also the CEO of Standard Chartered Bank, India. In 2021, she was named the 36th most powerful woman in India by Fortune India.In an email interview with the Post’s Srizu Bajracharya, Daruwala talked about her journey in the finance and banking sector, the aspiration of a gender-equal world, and why the world still lacks women in leadership positions. Excerpt:
Growing up, what sparked your interest in finance and banking? How do you see your journey so far—how has the experience been?
When I started my career close to 32 years ago, career options were limited to medicine, engineering or, as I chose, chartered accountancy. I joined ICICI, now ICICI Bank, on the advice of YH Malegam, one of the most successful chartered accountants in India. His advice was to join an equal opportunities employer, where there were already many women in senior positions. From the first day, I was encouraged to take ownership, given responsibilities, and recognised for what I could achieve.
There, I worked across a variety of roles—corporate planning, investment banking, and credit. Looking back, it was the varied nature of roles and experiences that helped shape my banking acumen and understanding. It gave me an aerial view of the banking "map", something I’ve found helpful in my current role at Standard Chartered Bank (SC Bank).
When I joined SC Bank India as CEO in 2016, there were two immediate challenges: Firstly, rebuild some of the existing businesses like corporate and institutional banking to make it stronger and sustainable; and secondly, scale up the retail banking business with cutting edge technology, competitive products and sharper client focus. We have turned around businesses and posted an impressive set of results across all our major business lines. The bank is back to enjoying sustained growth and profits. Of course, this is a journey without full stops, and there’s always a lot more to do.
In your professional journey, were there ever times when you were made to feel what you do is not enough, or that your work has been questioned because of your gender?
Both the organisations I have worked for, ICICI and Standard Chartered, are equal opportunity, gender agnostic and meritocratic employers which have successfully produced many women leaders. Over my career, I have witnessed how a diverse workforce also ensures you have the best talent, irrespective of the individuals' background or gender.
As a chairperson in one of Nepal’s leading banks, what are the things you have done to ensure that the women in your organisation get the exposure and recognition they rightfully deserve?
There is a lot that the bank has done and achieved in Nepal, even prior to my taking over as chairperson. We achieved our targeted gender ratio of 45 percent by 2021 and now we are looking to increase it to 48 percent. The training and mentoring of women colleagues to sharpen their leadership and professional skills is an ongoing programme that we will continue to drive.
Recognising that many of our women colleagues leave the workforce after becoming mothers, we might be the only bank to have 140 days' paid maternity leave against the mandated 90.
Employee resource groups (ERGs) have been created to primarily focus on different areas of diversity & inclusion (D&I). Within this, the gender ERG works on various initiatives and engagement activities around gender. We have a stringent non-discrimination employment clause in the Employee Service By-laws which states that the bank shall not discriminate in remuneration, terms of service and benefits on the basis of gender.
A whole host of policies are in place for a better working environment—such as a Prevention, Prohibition & Redressal of Sexual Harassment at the Workplace Guidelines, which enables a working environment free from harassment, unlawful discrimination and intimidation. All of our colleagues undergo learning programmes addressing unconscious bias and as to how D&I is directly aligned to our purpose of driving commerce and prosperity through our unique diversity.
Why do you think there are still fewer women in leading positions despite organisations aspiring for a gender-equal workspace?
We have seen that when it comes to junior or entry positions, there is a more equal participation in the workforce and that while women have the urge to aspire as much as men at the start of their careers, many quit the race in their 30s and 40s. Many working women take a break from their careers once they become mothers, to raise their children. Of course, being a mother is the most fulfilling moment and there certainly cannot be a compromise on a child’s upbringing. But a great majority of women don’t get back to formal careers after having a baby, so all the potential to contribute and achieve goes to waste—and I believe one other reason is the inadequate acknowledgement by workplaces that women need a supportive environment at these crucial milestones in life, which is also why by the time it comes to leadership positions there are fewer women to choose from.
With the global theme of #BreaktheBias for this Women’s Day 2022, how far do you think we have come as a society to achieve a gender-equal world?
I feel a gender-equal world is one where gender is not a consideration in any form or fashion, and we are still some way away from that goal. Undoubtedly, there has been progress over the past decades—more girls are going to school, fewer are forced into early marriage, more women are serving in leadership positions, and laws are being reformed to advance gender equality. Despite these gains, challenges remain with respect to discriminatory social norms, and women continue to be underrepresented in various walks of life including corporate leadership roles.
If we are to progress further, the universal education of all girl children and women is essential. Nepal has passed an act relating to compulsory and free education for children of school-going age as a fundamental right. This is a fantastic step as only when there is female literacy, can women step towards economic and financial independence, and that is when we can move towards a gender-neutral world.
You have been in this industry for almost 32 years. How do you think the sector has changed over the years?
I joined banking in an era of no internet, ATMs, credit cards or even a reasonable market for mortgages. Now that I look back, the sector has completely transformed with business and fulfilment at the speed of thought, with a majority of our clients interacting with us digitally.
We are now in the midst of another transformative revolution with the lines blurring between banking and fintech, which is inextricably linked with tailor-made offerings that deliver hyper-personalised services, products and economics to customers.
What do you think are the keys to becoming a successful leader, and how do you think your leadership made a difference in the teams you led over the years?
My own personal approach is to be solution-driven. The focus has to be on solving problems, not just identifying them, which coupled with a constructive outlook and an open mind to learn and unlearn, makes any challenge surmountable, of which there are many in the path to leadership.
You have to give it all you’ve got, and set the bar higher and higher each time and not rest on your laurels. Persevere. You would be surprised how things can change when you don’t give up. The great writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote: "Every wall is a door. So push hard till it finally yields."
Specific to how I have influenced my teams—I have always encouraged them to imbibe the client-centricity that one must have and demonstrate in the banking industry. I always think “client” and urge my colleagues as well. Banking is built on trust and service, not on products, so a happy client is your best brand ambassador.