Poonam Barua

(WOMENSENEWS)–Poonam Barua held her first national “Forum for Women in Leadership” conference about securing high-level corporate jobs for women in Mumbai, India, in early November. Three weeks later, terrorists raged through the city, blasting trains and hotels, killing at least 163 people.

Right then, Barua, the forum’s founder, began adapting her mission. “If women want to be leaders, they have to lead something,” she told Women’s eNews in February. “Take up a leadership cause.”

In addition to leveraging the talent pool of women in corporate India and making the workplace more inviting to them, Barua is sharpening her focus. She will train female executives to lead change in society and contend with India’s conflicts and national security crisis. Senior corporate women joining Barua have also resolved to advance education and governance.

Since that terrifying November Barua has visited four cities–Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad and Bangalore–and met with more than 100 high-ranking male and female executives.

“There is a deep passion in women to harness this protective DNA and they want to put it to improving society, home, the workplace and country,” said Barua, founder of Public Affairs Management Asia, a small corporate consulting firm based in Delhi that operates in New York, Mumbai and Bangalore.

A specific concern is cultivating stronger corporate involvement with local law enforcement to provide better protection to female workers. That comes in the wake of the Sept. 30, 2008, murder of Soumya Viswanathan, a TV reporter in Delhi, during her night-time drive home after working on a story about terror in terror in Gujarat and Maharashtra.

Lax Security Response

In responding to the crime, Sheila Dikshit, the chief minister of the state of Delhi, stunned party leaders and especially gender activists by saying women “should not be so adventurous” by driving late at night. Dikshit later revised her remarks to say that companies “should provide escort for the safety of our girls and boys.”

“After terrorism, it’s about terrorism within,” Barua, who is in her late 40s, said.

Barua is planning a leadership camp in Mysore in May for 25 senior female executives from across industries to learn methods of building change beyond the halls of their corporations. Infosys Technologies, India’s premier information-tech company headquartered in Bangalore, will co-sponsor the five-day retreat called “Creating Women Business Leaders: 2009.”

“We have to motivate women’s souls across an aspiration deficit,” she said. With no manuals or playbook, the camp invites an “experimental” discovery of strengths. It also promises to explore ways to enjoy the “leadership voyage,” build “vibrant relationships,” manage change and gain “presence.”

When asked to mention top female executives in India who are models of wielding power to cure societal ailments, Barua declined to name one.

While she recognizes the feats of Chanda Kochar, the recently appointed CEO and managing director of Mumbai-based ICICI Bank, India’s second-largest bank, and Indra Nooyi, CEO and chair of New York-based PepsiCo, Barua turns down opportunities to single them out. “I think every woman has to be celebrated,” she said. “If you take one, you’re doing an injustice.”

Action Plan for Change

In December Barua announced the “WILL Public Policy Series,” 12 meetings in three different cities to discuss the country’s most pressing social challenges and then write an action plan on contributing to the national agenda and social change.

Barua founded the Forum for Women in Leadership–called the WILL Forum–early last year as a networking forum for senior executive women to promote gender benchmarks in Indian corporations.

Since 2004, the number of women in elite company management has increased by 14 percent, the fastest rate of growth in Asia, according to the 2007 Grant Thornton International Business report. But female executives’ numbers are very low overall.

Only 2 percent of Indian women gain high-ranking corporate jobs, Barua said, though women make up 40 percent of the global paid work force. The problem with corporate leadership isn’t in hiring women, but in pushing them past mid-level.

“In India there is a particular problem with our social behavior, our perceptions,” said Dr. Jamshed J. Irani, a director of Tata Sons, a Mumbai-based company promoting the Tata Group, a multi-billion-dollar engineering, materials and information firm.

“There have been very clear cases when bright young girls joined” Tata, he said at Barua’s November conference, which he chaired. “They work for a short period of time, then naturally they get married, move to where their husband’s family lives, and raise children. Then they lose touch with their corporate jobs.”

In addition to cultural roles confounding Indian women’s rise, corporate offices are slow to install coaching and mentoring programs for women. “Corporate India has still not recognized the urgency of this business imperative,” Barua said.

Executive Recruits

About 10 years ago, Barua started bringing together thought-leadership forums for human resources, corporate governance and top-level executives to discuss best business practices in India. She was India’s regional director of the Conference Board, a global membership organization of business people based in New York, and most times, “if you had 40 people in the room, I was the only woman.”

Concerned with the absence of women’s involvement in decision-making, Barua, who gained her master’s degree from the Delhi School of Economics in 1979, started organizing.

She has mustered 150 senior women and men in corporate India as members and active contributors, including executives at multinational corporations such as Tata Consultancy, a provider of business advisors that operates in 42 countries; KPMG, the global auditing concern; and Infosys Technologies, which has 50 offices in Asia, Australia and the West.

So far, the government has not been actively involved in the WILL Forum programs, which has produced six research reports. Two recent reports profiling barriers to women’s rise in business and suggesting tactics to leverage women’s talents are gaining wide appeal among top companies, she said.

“If this work was happening already, you think I’d be doing this?” she said.

Malena Amusa gathered the material for this story during the fall of 2008, working as a reporter in Delhi.

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