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Lessons from Growth: Women in Banking In India 1950s-1990s

Lessons from Growth: Women in Banking In India 1950s-1990s

Editor's Note: This 1992 untitled partial report remains unauthored and is part of an older United nations Report on Women in Banking published on an 'old United Nations University directory'.

We found the commentary, data, analysis and especially the women's 'voices' expressed critical issues for women in banking and finance still being identified and addressed today in global markets.

There has been a marked increase in women's employment in the financial sector since the 1950s, in both public sector companies and private foreign-controlled banks. The increase has been most marked in metropolitan cities. By the mid-1960s the number of women entering the banks increased significantly, intensifying in the 1970s end early 1980s.

Despite this increase, women are still concentrated at the clerical level, and the general picture is changing only very slowly. Women officers in banks are a recent phenomenon, which has become a little more significant since 1975 because of direct recruitment and promotions (Kanhere, 1991). Even in EDP activities, the share of women is low. A recent study of Indian banking notes that in one bank women constituted only 5 per cent of the EDP staff, about 12 per cent in another bank and 7 per cent in an insurance company. Women were not recruited as programmers (Chopra, 1991).

There are considerable differences between individual banks, which women employees attributed to the historical development of personnel recruitment policies in the particular banks. 
Computerization and women in foreign banks

The effect of computerization on women bank employees, both clerical and officer grades, is of considerable significance as the process of computerization is soon to be intensified. A glimpse of the possible impact may be discerned from an analysis of foreign banks, in India. According to a unionist in Citibank,

In 1970, out of a total workforce of 200, there were only ten women. Now, in 1992, 70 per cent of the workforce are women. This includes programmers as well as women officers. Management feels women are better on computers as they have routine clerical ambitions. Women really do more work and their frustration level is higher.

(Presumably, he means their endurance is higher.) A union official in Banque Nationale de Paris confirms this:

Our managements' latest policy seems to be to recruit young girls and train them on computers. In our latest recruitment in January and April 1992, ten new employees were recruited. All ten were girls. Now we have women on all the customer counters. They are eager to learn, more sincere, obedient, less union-minded and also provide better customer service.

A militant unionist at the Grindlays bank said that, in Bombay, the proportion of women employees had increased from 5 per cent in 1970 to about 50 per cent in 1992. Figures from Grindlays management showed that about 35 per cent of their workforce, nation-wide, were women. This is a higher proportion than in most of their nationalized counterparts. According to a union official at Grindlays:

Earlier, the policy of multinational banks was not to recruit women employees. But over the last few years, they have changed. Management realised that women are more submissive, overworked, and have less time for union work. Besides, because of general socio-economic development, women do much better, especially in cities like Bombay.

The points which bank managements generally present in women's favour include:

(Mankidy, 1986a) 

An active woman unionist in the Hong Kong Bank confirmed the high recruitment rate of women, but explained it as due to the fact that women are better qualified and tend to put in greater effort. The better-qualified women apply for bank jobs, while similarly qualified men would tend to go in for jobs, such as engineering and computers, which employees regard as more challenging and which have better prospects in terms of job satisfaction and pay. Another reason which was suggested is that women resign sooner than men. Of the twenty-seven girls recruited in the 1991 batch, three had left within the first year. The pay levels of new recruits are considerably less than for a senior person, so it is less expensive for the management to have a fresh supply of new recruits. The Hong Kong bank has about 500 employees in the head office, of whom more than 350 are women, including more than half of the officers..

However it is not clear whether this source of employment will persist. The RBI's National Clearing Cell in Madras has already extended its 'instant credit' facilities to Saturdays. Because of the increasing involvement with foreign share markets and banks and the time difference between countries, it may not be too long before the hours of these and other facilities are extended to Sundays and night shifts. This would have a significant impact on the recruitment, employment and promotion of women. In Canada, where computerization has reached fairly advanced levels, banking jobs are coming to be more frequently occupied by men (Tremblay, 1991). Amin Rajan, in his study of the finance sector at an international level (1990) observes that, 'In the short term technology has created job opportunities for women. In the longer term, however, this process is likely to disadvantage women.'

The quality of women's work

The banking and insurance sectors today offer more prospects for jobs for women - both qualitatively and quantitatively. However there are some common problems faced by women managers, officers and clerical groups in banking and insurance, in the course of their careers. These include the burden of the dual role, sexual harassment in the workplace, the refusal of men to accept women as colleagues or seniors, the need to work twice as well as men to gain recognition, and the lack of solidarity among women.

According to a study by Kamala Srinivasan (1991) 50 per cent of women complained that extra work is always shunted to women. They also complained about sexual harassment from colleagues, managers, or customers. Women also felt dissatisfied that they were not sent out for training. Some obstacles arise from women's specific difficulties in demanding promotion - because promotions are linked with transfers; or they have difficulties in working late; or because women shy away from responsibility, having a low opinion of their own abilities and a negative attitude to accepting recognition (Mankidy, 1986a). Some women employees feel that these constraints are intensified by being forced to adopt the behaviour of the 'successful manager or officer' which has been established by men. They argue that women could find their own strategies which would achieve the same result (Mankidy, 1988).

One way of improving prospects for women could be to restructure the work, for example with flexible working hours, part-time job assignments, split location positions performed partly at home, and job-sharing (Mankidy, 1988). Some of these suggestions have already been tried out elsewhere, for example in Japan, where the results for women have not been entirely positive. None the less, examination of this experience could be a basis for working out alternatives which do not disadvantage women (International Labour Office, 1989).

Women's needs and aspirations with regard to employment and training

Technological change usually involves changes in job content, making many traditional skills obsolete and creating a demand for new types of skills. Training and retraining ensure not only that the enterprise obtains the optimal benefits from new technologies, it is also an effective way of protecting the employment of workers affected by technological change and other structural changes.

Workers, and the trade union movement, are divided about training. Some unions, such as the BNP (Banque Nationale de Paris) union, seem to have relinquished not only any initiative, but also responsibility for both the employees who are being forced to quit and those who are allowed to stay. Despite the 1986 agreement giving the union a right to participate in determining and formulating the training, there has been no move from the office-bearers of the union, all men, to take the initiative. One union officer said that they 'had not realised the importance of this clause at the time. And now it is too late.' Women employees at the BNP were almost desperate to be given retraining. They were too young - about 39 to 42 years of age - to retire. They saw no other way to retain their employment. They were also keen to learn new skills.

The union in Citibank, on the other hand, participated actively in the computerization process as well as the training process. But even in Citibank there seems to be no long-term view as to the type of jobs and skills which will be required in the future. The younger recruits have been given a one-week training course in computer languages, which they did not use in the year following the course. They were then given a very brief, functional on-the-job type course. As one senior woman employee now working in the Bill Discounting department says: 'We were given a half-day "familiarity with the word-processor" course, and printed sheets telling us what to press for which function.' The Citibank women employees felt they knew too little, apart from their own little work area, and they wanted to know more so that they would not be adversely affected when it came to promotions. The attitude of women at the Hong Kong bank was similar. The ANZ Grindlays Bank Employees' Union had a very different perspective, 'We have completely opposed computerisation. There are no skills involved in operating computers. It only deadens your mind. We cannot participate in such a process. We believe in struggle.' In the Indian banks, the younger women and those between 31) and 45 years old seemed keen on their jobs as careers, whereas many in the 30-45 age group had many more responsibilities at home - although some of the latter felt that learning about computers at work would also help them to assist their children in their studies, since computers have been introduced in many schools. Many women felt that learning to use computers, and being in the EDP department, would protect them against transfers to remote areas, as EDP departments are located only in the metropolitan cities.

Most of the older women, especially those above 50, felt they would not be able to cope with any new retraining. They would undertake it if it was necessary for the job. However, a small minority of women above SO years of age also seemed keen to take up a new challenge. As one woman put it,

As women, we are used to challenges, at home, at work, in combining the two roles, and in relationships with in-laws, neighbours, community, children, colleagues, and bosses. As we grow older, these challenges become routine matters. When you no longer have in-laws, when children are well settled elsewhere, when neighbourhood relationships are settled and repetitive, what do we do? We are used to challenges. New skills are merely one such challenge. Why not take it up?

Another woman disagreed, but from a very different point of view.

I'm not sure that computer skills are any skill at all. What are we doing? The generalised use of computers is only a means of deskilling and flattening us all. Very soon using computers will be like using our pencils. Then all of us will be declared unskilled and redundant again. We need to do something else.

In the Banque Nationale de Paris, thirty-seven people had to leave under the Voluntary Retirement Scheme, including ten women. At the same time they recruited ten young women to work on the computers at the customer counter. A 39 year old woman who was forced to take the VRS explains the strategy thus:

For over two years, we were given very little work and we were shunted about from one department to another, one floor to another. We were treated like badli (casual) workers and were made to feel redundant and easily disposable. We pleaded to the management that we be given training on the computers. But they declined. We have a seniority of over twenty years, our pay levels are quite high, thanks to our earlier struggles. We are very confident and know our management inside out. Why should they want us any more?

Another woman activist working in the BNP says,

...they would have to spend money giving us training. Now they've killed so many birds with one stone. One, the new girls are already trained. Two, the girls start at a much lower rate, about half our wage levels. Three, they are new, more enthusiastic to please the management. Four, the management has succeeded in creating an atmosphere of terror and uncertainty. These young girls are bound to be affected by this atmosphere and work with heads bent. Five, they have no experience with this management and are not affected by the union movement. The management has succeeded in throwing out all the active members of the union. Those active workers that remain are likely to be promoted to the management category.

On the issue of computerization and training, there seems to be fairly divergent views among bank managements too. By and large, the nationalized Indian banks seem to feel that 'it is better to retrain a banker in computer skills than train a computer specialist in banking'. To this end, the Indian Banks' Association has developed training packages for various types of personnel. The National Institute of Bank Management has a very wide range of training programmes for top management, and every bank has its own programmes for their staff. The foreign banks again seem to operate differently. In contrast to the BNP management, the Grindlays bank has not introduced an early retirement scheme, and has retrained its existing personnel. However according to the Personnel Department at the ANZ Grindlays, it is likely that the bank will insist that new recruits have some knowledge of computers.

One woman employee who had attended a training course arranged by the management at a professional computer training institute, said,

The whole management approach to training is like their approach to our work - extraction. In both it is the superiors or the experts laying the ground rules, without any input or participation expected from us. Participation is only a hindrance, a point of delay, precious time wasted. I had a feeling of being steam-rollered rather than of having learnt something.

Another suggested:

Workshops should be organized in such a way that women are collectively given the space to handle PCs, and with manuals explaining what needs to be done. One can have experts in at crucial times like an introductory familiarizing talk, and when we feel we need someone to guide us, but not experts breathing down our necks like supervisors on an assembly line.

In fact, the women felt that such training sessions would also achieve a great deal from the point of view of the management.

The crux of the problems created by technological changes appears to be that the entire strategy is still technology-centred. Behind the technology-centred approach is a mechanized world-view in which computers, a machine carrying out the brain work of the human, are superior to people.

In one of the training sessions we were told how computers may be used to level the hierarchies and authorities that exist in the workplace. But in practice a new hierarchy has been created, alongside the earlier one. You can do only this, and can have access to only this, while the authorities have a greater range of activities and access to greater areas of information.

Despite their criticism of the training programmes organized by the management, the women employees are extremely keen on learning new things and new skills. In fact, the new generation of bank and insurance employees, including women, are very serious about their work and career-conscious. Reports of workshops with women clerks, officers and managers have indicated both the problems women face and their commitment to face these challenges for a better career. A senior unionist who has been active in the bank unions notes a shift,

The attitude of the employees is changing. They no longer look at the unions as an expression of their aspirations, but as an agency which will deliver the goods. They are with the union because they mistrust the management. Their real interest however is their career.

The unions too have begun to organize workshops for women employees. These workshops discuss the problems women employees face in their multiple roles, how women deal with these, and what their experiences are. Similar workshops are organized by the National Institute of Bank Management (NIBM), for women managers. Women clerical staff, officers and managers have reacted to these positively. One woman working in the EDP Department at the insurance corporation observes'

We feel the thirst for more knowledge and better career prospects. Stagnation somehow scares us. Training programmes and institutions which acknowledge this, and our dilemmas and situation, are well received. But there are fewer of those than we need.

In some of the courses in the National Institute of Bank Management, women managers are encouraged to talk about their ideas and suggestions as well as their experiences as women in banking. Many other unions and management training institutes are organizing similar courses. Women feel that this needs to be done more systematically and more often, so that a greater range of issues and diverse sections of women employees might be covered.

Women employees organizing

The interests of women employees have been expressed in different ways. In the early 1980s the Women's Wing of the All India Conference of Bank Officers' Organizations (AICOBOO), open to women officers only, was formed. However the issues that concern them relate to all women employees. According to one of the spokeswomen of the Women's Wing,

There is a pressing need for women to form strong pressure groups to see that the right to education and employment do not remain merely on paper. The problems of working women can be dealt with more effectively through collective action. (Amberkar, 1985)

The discrimination experienced by women working in banks is mainly in terms of the lack of infrastructural facilities, the transfer policy, and assumptions that women would not be interested in training or in promotions. The Women's Wing of the AICOBOO has been taking up these issues systematically. One outcome of their work has been the charter of demands they submitted to their union confederation. These included:

• Infrastructural facilities such as creches and day care centres.

• Provision of hostels for working women, accommodation for divorced, separated and widowed women with children.

• Special leave with a lien on service, for up to say five years, to meet certain contingencies specific to women, extending this facility to men also whenever required.

• Provision for a woman with a child less than three years old to work for fewer hours and receive proportionate pay.

• Family pension and voluntary retirement for men and women after twenty years of service.

• Provision for flexi-hours and part-time employment in suitable cases.

• Although maternity leave (12 weeks in all) is regarded as fairly satisfactory, additional provisions required are medical benefits, hospitalization, leave for the purpose of child care, paternity leave for at least ten days, further leave also for those who have to look after an infant in special circumstances.

• Discrimination exists in our laws with regard to women . . . especially with regard to taxation, which needs to be looked into. (Mankidy, 1989)

The specific demands put forward by the Women's Wing include a uniform transfer policy in all banks for women officers, and a cell to deal with women's issues in every bank's personnel department. They are currently trying to formulate demands relating to training programmes and time off for women to do union work.

Similarly the All India Bank Employees Association (AIBEA) has initiated a women's wing of the union to take up issues specially affecting women. The Reserve Bank of India has a Women's Forum for the same purpose. The unions in the LIC have begun to organize women-only meetings and workshops. The Insurance Employees Association decided in 1991 to organize women employees more effectively, as the number of women employees was increasing day by day, with over 75 per cent of the new recruits being women. The association has demanded creche facilities, special leave and better working conditions for women, and the removal of hidden discrimination.

The demands put forward by the Punjab National Bank Employees Union include:

• Inter-region transfers of women on a priority basis.
• Arranging pre-promotion training programmes women who want to take tests relating to promotions.
• Displacement on promotion to be avoided.
• Protection for pregnant women who work on computers.
• Women should be given temporary transfers on request during pregnancy, etc.

The unions and the management have begun to acknowledge the separate needs of women employees and the specificity of the issues they face. Yet women employees' concerns and aspirations have not been adequately addressed by either. The training programmes organized by management do not include the vast majority of women employees. A 1986 study by the IBA showed that only 20 per cent of staff received some training in any one year (Madhukar, 1986). Officers of the NIBM reported that the situation had not changed since then.

The sessions organized by the unions are at a mass level and do not allow for the much-needed interaction and sharing of experiences. These too are organized fairly erratically. One senior woman employee notes,

Both types of programmes - union and management- seem one-sided rather than multidimensional. In the union workshops and meetings, we are addressed as union members; in the management training programmes we are bank employees. But all of us are much more than that. We are employees, we are women, we are home-makers, we are thinking and feeling human beings, we are ambitious and much more. Training programmes need to keep this perspective in mind.

Women feel the need for different types of inputs too. In the wake of liberalization and globalization and the changes in Indian banking, they want to know what is happening in the banking and finance sectors in other countries in terms of women's employment and organizing, what the experiences of women in those countries have been and what strategies they have used. Many women employees, including women officers, also feel that they would like to know and interact with women in other sectors too. As a young insurance officer said, 'What is happening to women nationally is of concern to us and is going to affect us.'

Such interconnections between the women's wings of the banking and insurance unions and the women's movement in the country and outside have begun to be explored recently, and a few women employees at all levels have begun participating in women's movement conferences. However, there is as yet no reciprocal interest from the women's movement in the concerns of employees in banking and finance. Developments in this area would also strengthen the links between the various forums and organizations that represent the interests of women bank and insurance employees. This would also necessarily include a wider forum for national and international solidarity for the exchange of information, strategies and forms of organization.


The last decade has seen a systematic rise in the employment of women in the banking and finance sector. The result of a multiplicity of factors, including: profound social changes taking place in India regarding women's education and employment; the changing policies of management, especially after the nationalization and reorganization of the LIC and of major banks; the policies of the Indian government; international changes in banking and finance and, not least, the technological changes being effected in the industry.

Computerization has had positive and negative implications for the workforce. It has affected employment levels and workloads and brought increasing pressure for flexibility. It has changed the content of work, and brought reduced job security and a shift towards more non-bargainable employees, which affects the nature and stability of the union. There have been changes in grading and pay, and in the means by which the workforce and information are controlled. The autonomy of employees and their conditions of work, and health and safety, have been affected also.

These all have a specific impact on women employees, who are being recruited in large numbers in the banking and finance sector, mainly in the clerical category. Women employees are increasingly looking at their work in terms of career prospects and are keen on learning new skills and advancing in their careers, despite severe limitations. They are organizing themselves into unions and separate women's caucuses within and outside unions.

While the rate of recruitment has slackened in India since the mid-1980s, there has not yet been a reversal, as has happened in some western countries. Women employees feel the need to broaden their vision by relating to each other and sharing information about national and international trends. This is an important basis for both interaction with the national women's movement and for international solidarity and sharing of experiences and working on future strategies.

This is especially relevant in the context of the introduction and extension of new technology in workplaces, as new technology has made the globe a much smaller place in terms of the spread of technologies and management strategies. Women employees need a constant process of discussion and strategy formulation if they are not merely to respond to these changes, but to become more proactive, to make suggestions and changes to suit their short and long-term interests.


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