Murugappa group shareholders have voted against Valli Arunachalam, denying her a seat on the board of the family-run business. Over 91 percent of the shareholders at the general meeting of Ambadi Investments voted against the appointment of Arunachalam as a director on the company’s male-dominated board. This despite her holding 8.15 percent stakes in the company, along with her mother and sister. Valli Arunachalam’s struggle to break the glass ceiling in a patriarchal family run business tells us how difficult it is for women, even today, to find a seat on a table full of men, let alone run a company.
Arunachalam, who holds a doctorate in nuclear engineering, has been engaged in a fierce legal battle with the 120-year-old family-run business ever since her father MV Murugappan former executive chairman of Ambadi Investments Ltd (AIL) passed away in 2017. Despite holding close to eight percent shares, in between her sister, herself and her mother, Arunachalam claims that the company is denying them a seat on the Ambadi board.
“The Murugappa Group is a family-owned business. After my father’s passing away in 2017, I struggled for over two years to get fair value of our shareholding from the family, but in vain. While every family branch, has a representative on the board of the holding company, ours does not. Ours is the only family branch that is comprised of women. Although, I have as much educational and industrial experience as any male family member, I have not been given a board seat despite my repeated requests to the Ambadi board. There seems to be no legitimate reason why I cannot be on the board except for gender discrimination. I am fighting for justice and equality for not just my family, but on behalf of all women,” Arunachalam told SheThePeople in an interview in February this year.
The fight for equality in boardrooms isn’t Arunachalam’s alone. And we have data to prove that. As per the study titled ‘Women On Board 2020’, India ranks 12th in the world, when it comes to the presence of women members on board. Among the companies that participated in the study, of all those that had women board members, only 29 percent had two women directors. 63 percent of such companies had just one woman director. Read more about the findings here. According to a report by Bloomberg Quint, women accounted for 17 percent of board directors in Nifty 500 companies as of March 2020, which was a rise of two percent from the previous year. A rise yes, but one so small, that it will take ages for women to have equal representation in boardrooms if we continue to progress at this speed.
To understand this paltry representation, and the resistance that Arunachalam is encountering, we have to understand that most businesses in India are patriarchal. Established by fathers, grandfathers and uncles, the power in such family-run companies is handed down generation to generation within the inner circle. And naturally, male members of the family get a preference. Orthodox families in our country are not okay with the concept of women working. In middle class families, this means women cannot go out to work. In business families, it means that shares are merely an inheritance for women. You can keep the shares and tranfer it generation to generation, but you are not given any right to the power and authority they can bring you, because that can only be handed over to the men of the family.
As the above-stated figures show, things are improving gradually for women, with more and more companies opening their boardrooms to women. However, do we know how much of this representation is tokenism? How much authority do women board members, the one who come from within the family, hold? These questions are important because they are key to understanding where Indian boardrooms are truly headed. Towards full-fledged equality, where sons and daughters are not only treated equally but are trusted with responsibilities to an equal degree? Or to merely ticking the boxes on paper, to appear progressive to the media and the consumers?
Arunachalam will continue to fight for what she deems is right. “In any event, we would definitely pursue justice and we will take all the steps needed for the same,” she told The Economic Times, adding, “It was always our wish that the family issues remain within and are settled at the family level, but clearly it seems the family is more concerned about protecting its draconian perspectives and practices, even if it means forcing us to take the battle to courts. We will not shy away this time.”
I think this is what any woman fighting for what is rightfully hers should do- persist and fight on. But is that enough though?
Change needs to come from within Indian families, those running multi-crore businesses and otherwise. It needs to begin in drawing rooms so that it can reflect in boardrooms and workplaces. And each one of us has the power to do that. Have that conversation on equality and gender discrimination at your home. No matter how insignificant you may find it to be, but it is only through such conversations, can we manage to challenge patriarchy and smash it once and for all.
The views expressed are the author’s own.