She has a doctorate in nuclear engineering, with an experience of 23 years of working with multinational companies, and she is currently engaged in a bitter legal battle with a nearly 120-year-old family-run business. Ms Valli Arunachalam, daughter of late MV Murugappan, former executive chairman of Ambadi Investments Ltd (AIL), is fighting tooth and nail for a seat on the all-male board of the company, a holding company of the Murugappa Group. 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 reason? Gender discrimination, she alleges.
Arunachalam speaks with SheThePeople.TV on how her fight for justice is also a fight for equality, how family-run businesses still endorse patriarchal values, and why equality should be one of the core values of corporations.
You are currently engaged in a bitter battle with the Murugappa group for a position on the board. Could you brief our readers on how this rift deepened so much?
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.
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You have a doctorate in nuclear engineering and settled in New York. How has this rift affected your daily-life and career?
My passion and dedication towards empowering women in the workplace is my driving force. When one is on a mission, there is boundless positive energy, and with this energy I am able to balance my mission with my daily life and career.
I am fighting for justice and equality for not just my family, but on behalf of all women.
The AIL board has said that you do not have the required training or experience in running the business, hence the reluctance to put you on board. Your comments on this claim?
This is not supported by their own practice in the past, and is now a glaring example of gender discrimination. The current Executive Chairman of the Murugappa group, was inducted to the board at the age of 23, straight out of college and with no training and experience in the family business. I have a doctorate in nuclear engineering and 23 years of work experience in multinational companies. While untrained and inexperienced male members can be inducted to the board, why should trained and experienced female members be kept out of the board?
Are Indian workspaces more prone to gender bias, especially in higher positions, considering how most businesses are family-run and thus endorse patriarchal values?
There is still a lot of discrimination against women in businesses even after they have proved their credentials. This is especially evident in family-run businesses that still endorse patriarchal values. In this day and age, there is no place for such discrimination at any level.
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A lot of women aren’t very vocal about facing gender-discrimination at the workplace. Why do you think that needs to change?
Gandhiji said, “Be the Change that you want to see in the world.” It takes courage and bold action to effect change and that is exactly what my fight is about. I sincerely hope that more women will join me in this fight. It is a fight against gender discrimination and for equal opportunity in the workplace. Credentials and capability should be centre stage in the workplace, not gender.
While untrained and inexperienced male members can be inducted to the board, why should trained and experienced female members be kept out of the board?
What steps can be taken by corporations to ensure that women do not have to fight for their rights, be it for a seat at the board, or for equal pay?
The change must happen at the very top levels and trickle down for it to have a meaningful and lasting effect. Equality should be one of the core values of corporations. There is plenty of data and research that indicates that having women on the board is a win-win for the business. Some steps that can be taken by corporations to close the gender gap is to provide mentorship and leadership training programs, equal opportunity, and equal pay for equal work.
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How can women who are already in the boardrooms in family-owned businesses promote more women on the board?
They must lead by example and take the time and effort to encourage, mentor and train other women.