BONUS | Asha Merugu - Gender Parity in Finance

Asha Merugu, Senior Manager in EY GDS, joins Count Me In to discuss her journey up the career ladder. In this episode, Asha outlines the challenges and strategies to excel as a woman in the finance sector in India and describes how she was able to overcome these obstacles and demonstrate her abilities to be an organizational leader. The finance and accounting scene in India currently consists of private and government sectors driving major business initiatives to promote gender parity, and Asha shares her perspective on everything happening. Download and listen now!

FULL EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Adam: (00:05)
Welcome back to Count Me In. IMA’s podcast about all things affecting the accounting and finance world. I'm your host, Adam Larson, and I'm pleased to bring you another bonus episode for my co-host Rouba Zeidan. For this conversation, Rouba talks with Asha Merugu, senior manager at EY. Asha explains her career journey in the finance industry and shares her perspective on how gender parody is being driven in many private and government sectors in India. Let's head over and take a listen to the full conversation now.

Rouba: (00:38)
So according to the Global Findex database released by the World Bank, roughly one out of two bank accounts in India remain inactive, which is about twice the average of other developing economies. What is the worst, you know, is notable in terms of the gender gap when it comes to this amount? So for example, 54% of women account holders report not actually using their accounts as opposed to 43% of male holders. Do you think that there's a need for financial education amongst women in order to render the more financially savvy?

Asha: (01:18)
No, it's a great question. Obviously, yes, right. So there has to be a financial education amongst women. There is no secondary view about it, but if you look at like in today's era, what is very important, is it just not awomen, like, even men need financial education, but of course they are considering, you know, I have gone in a very small region India and you know, so my mother is a working professional. She was, she is a doctor, and then I have seen as a kid, how challenging it is for working mothers to manage a finance and a home and a work. So finance was always in the hands of the father, right? Like the major decisions were made by fathers and anything to do with the major investments in India is always made by of, you know, father of the family. So that's how the most Indian families, which are traditionally like, you know, middle class and maybe a little bit higher upper middle class families would do except for some exceptions. But, but I agree with you, I think considering the way, you know, the India is going on. Oh, you're right. Like most of the wommen in India does not have active bank accounts. You know there could be majority of the reasons, like, for example, if you take working women, they do have bank accounts, right? So because salary gets credited to bank, but look at the number of transactions that happens in the account. Oh, I mean the service here sees that most women are not very, very, investment savvy. They don't really want to invest and take risks. This is like a majority of the mindset because it's, it's always a protective or culture that we have grown up. Right. We have been grown up as a kid that, okay, you have to save, you have to take care. You know, you have to, or you have to secure yourself, and this is how I think the education system in India works too. And this is what makes women very conservative, especially I feel in India. And most of the women though, they earn salaries and their bank account would be limited to the salary account. You don't find them making the investments, which meant there to make it aggressively. Right. They don't actually spend the portfolios aggressively. Now coming to the question of, you know, like how do you give this education to your question that, do you think there's a need for financial education? Yes. I think there's a very, very, very important need for financial education, especially amongst I think the middle class families and, you know, the working woman category, the Indian government is also doing quite a few things to get this education spread amongst the communities. In fact, I think if you look at Jonathan Yogendra that India, God, which makes every household to have an account bank account, you know, compulsory for the purpose of getting the pension or maybe for the purpose of getting any of the amenities, which our government is passing on, the government made it mandatory. I think that was a great initiative from a government perspective to get women  data, at least as a concept of saving. And there's a concept of you having an account to get your money. That way the woman doesn't just take all the money and put it in the hands of men. In some families, I think it's very unfortunate that this will happen so that the government has done some initiatives by having this agenda huge now. And I think bringing some education, bringing all the schemes through which the small amount of the money reaches, right. It reaches through an account itself. So even though I think the report says a lot, gradually my view is that is India speaking up. You know, the people are becoming extremely, you know, now savvy about using the bank accounts, you know, using digital means and more so because of the COVID right. In the last six months, I think we have seen a great transformation in India. Maybe this question would have been definitely very relevant six months ago. And I see, Oh, you know, because there was an option for people to use and not to use digital means and accounts and et cetera, or, you know, people may be what I think, not, not really compelled to do it, but if you look at now, I think because of all of these initiatives of a government and the COVID and the digital initiatives, which are coming up in India. Digital India is a biggest initiative in India where everybody is forced to use it. I'll give you like a very small examples of how I see in, you know, women are using, you know, bank accounts now, because they're compelled to have ATM's and pay apps and, you know, all of those digital wallets. You know, I live in a very small place, like, you know, like it's actually cost mobility. And I live in Bangalore, you know, which is, which is a very good city, but there are some places of the Bangalore, which has got, you know, a small streets where all the women sit on the floor and they sell jewelry, they sell vegetables and they sell all the types of items. And I see a biggest advancement amongst them, as they do accept digital mode of cash, which means they're getting comfortable, right, to start using digital initiatives. I think I feel, yes, there is definitely a need. I mean, it is definitely important for government to think through more, to provide a financial education, but there is definitely some kind of an advancement happening in India. So that's what I feel.

Rouba: (06:20)
Amazing initiatives actually. It kind of gives you a very promising view of the future, but I mean, despite this rapid, rapid and consistent growth of the financial sectors, we want to zoom in on that. And specifically in India, there's a widening gender gap in the country's financial industry. I mean, with women, underrepresented, underrepresented in employment, at nearly every single level, this is the very same ecosystem that you rose to a leadership position, and yet you remain undeterred. So how has your experience been, and what were some of your guiding principles?

Asha: (06:59)
Yeah. So it's, it's a journey, Rouba, isn't it? It's all about a journey. Leadership is all about, I think the purpose of a life and living life. And I truly believe in it, you would not be able to achieve anything overnight, you know, in life, right. You have to really strive for it and you have to dream for it. And I've believed in this principle that, you know, you're all about your thoughts. If you think you can, you can, if you think you can't you're right, because you thought that you can't, right. So the human mindset is always about the thoughts and the thoughts makes you and, and thoughts breaks you. So of course, I think the women in India definitely has to, you know, has to support each other to, you know, like get into the ecosystem and understand each other and understand that leadership is not just a position in the organization. You know, I keep telling this to people like, you know, just because somebody is holding a directorship in an MNC, or somebody is holding a senior vice president position, you know, in a large company that is not leadership. According to me, you know, leadership is, is just a dedicated intention to do something really great, right? Something, something which you ask buyer to do it, you have to be a problem solver. You have to be, you know, you have to be a person with great aspiration. You have to be a driver, right. I mean, in the workplace, in the community and at home, we have all the opportunity to show leadership skills and it just, I think we just have to live with that purpose. We have to understand that leadership is all about assuming that you are a leader by your self and self drive things for you. Find an opportunity in every challenge, right? Find the solution in every problem. It just stand up like as small as a woman who stand up for the family and gives the support to the families of, true leader. And we find, I mean, take an example of an Indian prime minister, right? He is what he is because of his mother. And he keeps saying it in all the forums that his mother was, I was a leader, true leader for him. Though, I think she hasn't was holding any big positions that she wasn't educated, but the dedication commitment that she got to self-drive herself, she's known, I think, you know, more than 90 years old,and she does all her work on her own. She lives by herself. And these are what I think are the leadership skills, which is what all of us have to understand. We should never be like de-motivated or disappointed by looking at someone's position because all of these are, you know, materialistic, right. A leadership is, is a state of mind if you believe that you can achieve and whatever you achieved in an area that you truly believe in, you are a leader. And my guiding principle always been lead by example. Right? You have to lead by example to build a more inclusive culture.

Rouba: (09:39)
And then if you were to look at, the, you know, beyond multinational companies, initiatives, do you believe that the private sector is indeed presenting women with equal opportunities to rise to their full career potential? And what are some of the initiatives that you can kind of, refer to or commend as well within that spectrum?

Asha: (10:01)
Yeah. No, it's a great, great question. See, I'm giving more from an Indian context. Of course I can generalize, but, but yeah, in India, you know, yes, there are public sector undertakings, there is private sector, and of course there is a multinational sector, which is like a larger, you larger segment of a private sector. Yes, I agree with you. Okay, so I think, you know, to the extent the, as I believe that the private sector is indeed or giving fairly more opportunities for elementeries up to that, you know, carrier potential compared to the, public sectors. I mean, I'm not kind of making it a way statement to say, no public sector doesn't do anything, but that's not what I meant is they do, but of course, because of, you know, the culture in which the private sectors have grown up and because of, you know, segmentizing the entire company, right? Like by way of introducing departments like headshot and, you know, introducing departments like talent culture, and, you know, some of these, assigning the responsibilities to get the diversity and inclusion as part of the agenda is of course driving private sectors much more faster than the public sectors now, because public sectors I think are doing better, but is there like a top, most part of their agenda, maybe not, you know, it is just, okay, because some, some schemes of the government also compares here that you have to have an X percentage of women. I'm sure, you know, when the entire elections were happening in India, there was, there was this entire thought process that, okay, some 30% of the entire seats have to be filled by women, right. And they'll say some force and something is made mandatory. And therefore, you know, some companies justtend to pick in the box and say, yes, we hired women because we have, we have need to have that gender gap in the organization, but some companies are truly taken it as an agenda and truly want to drive that initiative. Like, you know, where, where I work, I work for EYi, and EY truly this initiative. Right. And I see a diversity and inclusion being very seriously taken. And women employees are given a lot of flexibility when, I mean, flexibility or, you know, I'm sorry if I have to like call flexibility as, you know, less working hours, right, less pressure job than it is not a flexibility than it is taking away your opportunity. Right. Flexibility is where they're allowing you to do the work, you know, maybe at a, at a different timelines, but you're doing equally what the men is doing. You know men, isgetting up at like 10:00 AM to like seven, eight, 9:00 PM. Maybe women when needs a little more flexibility, you know, like maybe I'll start in the morning and then, you know, I will continue my schedule is because we have lot of things to manage. We own up the family and right. There's a lot of ownership, you know, as small as like, you know, if there's no toothpaste at home, we have responsibility to just get it replaced. And, and like we, as a store's manager, we are the producer, you know, we are the cook and we are like heart and soul of the entire family.So there's a lot of pleasure, right? So there is, the companies are doing a lot to give that flexibility, especially, you know, the woman needs a lot of support a couple of times in the carrier, right? Like one, whenever there is a marital status getting changed and you know, and there's a marriage happening, is there are companies who actually have the flexibility for them to relocate from one place to another place so that she doesn't lose job. And then, you know, also, continue to be a part of the same organization. So there are relocation policies, you know, there are some  good initiatives. When it comes to like a maternity, which is like the biggest phase where most, women, you know, it is like a boat. Either, we sail, or we draw. We keep thinking, you know, should I, or should I not? And some people just make a very bold step that okay, I should. And some people will think, Oh my God, you know, I'm losing on the motherhood. I'm not able to take care of the kid, and some people will draw. So you see a lot of women in a way when I put like a organization structured as a triangle, a lot of women drops as the start reaching on the top. Not because they don't have the ability to reach on the top because the, the age at which they started to age at which they get into a middle management is an age where they also got into the, you know, family pressure. They got into a lot of, you know, the, I mean, a lot of social of circumstances. It's like something that, you know, there's a comment by a lot of forces and that is where a woman has to take a good step, and some companies are helping. Some companies that are having flexible, no maternity leaves like, you know, the organization that I used to work for had something called shared leave concept. Okay, well, let's say six months as a maternity leave. And I think by the way, if, you know, in India, that's a greatest change in India. It used to be three months, you know, offer maternity leave, which technically means like 12 weeks and India was I think, a good enough, you know, I think the Indian government was really great in putting those efforts to make it six months, which means the women can go to maternity leave for six months in India for the statue here.

Rouba: (14:53)
As a woman who had to fend through competition injustice and to some extent, unequal business worlds, and obviously you mentioned that your current experiences, has been great with EY. And so maybe in your past and going into this career in finance and coming through with flying colors, what advice do you have for women who are looking to make it in the finance sector or even any business sector for that matter?

Asha: (15:22)
Yeah. Okay. No, it's a great thing. I can share insights, not really an advice, but I can just share my experiences of how one should look at the finance sector. You know, I, before I shared that, what I really want to say to a lot of women is, I mean, we are definitely changing, right? The world is changing. think about like womens’ you know, enrollment in higher education, like before the, before, like, you know, even if you talk about, like little bit in a while ago, maybe in the year 19 hundreds, if I go with less than 10% and it's, it's great to see now you will see around 48.6% as per the surveyconducted by higher education. you know, the body, the reported that like more than 48% of the women are now enrollingfor higher education. Right. And that's excellent exactly. And which is a greatest change by itself. So now, where am I trying to give that, like, most of these people who are going for higher education, the women tend to choose like, you know, different parts of their career. Yes. Okay. There's an aviation that is finance and, you know, there are different, you know, different, I think the sectors available for you to choose,and I'm not going to comment on the rest of the sectors. I've been all my life in the, in the, you know, in the finance sector and finance is like the blood of the organizations. There's a lot of pressure. You have to be like 24 by seven all the time thinking about, you know, what is changing, what are the new things coming up? You know, we have to update because of the law and the regulations, which comes up like, you know, in any country keeps on evolving, right? We just can't live with the same regulation, which was there 10 years ago. It puts you a lot of pressure to update it accustomed. Like, you know, and, and finance has now become a business partner. If you look at the way or the function of the finances looked in across the board. And of course in India too, is like finance is considered to be a business partner. It is no more just collecting and paying checks, and you know, this, this clearing some bills it's considered to be a value partner for the entire organization. And finance now lies with sales, finance now coordinates you know, supply chain,finance coordinates with the technology finance coordinate with social, or maybe for that matter, CSR, you know, it coordinates with the entire organization. And what is my, you know, in my advice to most of the women is be very in your career plan, right? So that's what I'm going to advise people of. We have multiple options. Once you get into a field of finance, to their multiple, multiple choices, you get including a choice to just drop down to choice, to raise up to a next level in your career, the choices in your hand. And even if I want to raise up to a next level, you know, we always believe that, okay, you know, should I stick to this company? Or just because I need a promotion, I want to jump to another company, you know, I'm not doing well therefore, I have to go to another company. So most, I think, you know, most I've seen that, you know, most of the people keep thinking about this hopping in my mind. One has to be very clear in their career and have a long-term plan and be visible, make your own brand, right. If you have to be very successful in the field of finance, you have to be brand by yourself. And this is what I keep talking to my peers, and especially when we are in, you know, in the girls gang, and we talk about, is some people walk up to me and say, how did you do it? Like, you know, I have two kids and managing is definitely a task. Okay, but should we give up answer is no, we should never, we have to just make a brand by ourselves. You're working for the brand is great, but are you a brand by yourselves should be the choice for women. And once they make the choice and they're, self-reliant, you know, they, they know that people are admiring the kind of compromises they're doing, the kind of sacrifices that you're bringing, you know, the kind of initiative that you take up, you will automatically grow up in your career. So don't, I think, see a position and then start working for the position. Start working, you'll automatically get a position.

Closing: (19:29)
This has been Count Me In, IMA's podcast, providing you with the latest perspectives of thought leaders from the accounting and finance profession. If you like, what you heard. And you'd like to be counted in for more relevant accounting and finance education, visit IMA's website at www.imanet.org.
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