'I'm a daughter - I'm not allowed to participate'

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Media captionShilpa Kannan speaks to Rajshree Pathy about the challenges for women in family firms

If your family has been running a business for more than 100 years, it's probably fair to assume that you will operate the business one day, too.

But not in the case of Indian industrialist and entrepreneur Rajshree Pathy. She was married at just 17, and as a woman was never expected to take over the family business.

It is only by default (if there are no male heirs to take over) that women, if at all, get into business, she says, and the perception is still that women cannot run hardcore companies.

"Either a well-educated Ivy League son-in-law is brought in, or several male cousins will be brought in to run the business and carry on the family name," says Ms Pathy.

Given that most Indian companies are family-owned, employing nearly half of the country's workforce, and accounting for almost two-thirds of India's economy, this will strike many as surprising.

But still in India, when it comes to a family business, it is men who inherit.

Overcoming challenges

Mrs Pathy was among the first to break down the gender barrier and defy this tradition.

Nearly 30 years ago she was thrown into the family business when her father died suddenly. As part of the sixth generation of the PSG Naidu Group, she had to take over the running of several educational and philanthropic institutions in southern India.

But she was unprepared for the challenge.

"Of course, the banks came down very heavily on me saying, 'young lady your father is gone, who is going to sign the personal guarantees? Who is going to ensure the money we have lent you is going to come back to us? We might just take over the business'."

Image caption Most Indian firms are family-owned, employing nearly half of the country's workforce

She didn't back down. Her first challenge was completing the sugar mill her father had started to build.

Facing a drought, sugarcane production that year was down, so the millers were already struggling, but she asked the banks for time to gain control of the fledgling sugar mill, and proved to them she could run a business.

"Once I figured it out, I ran two textile mills," she says.

I built Rajshree Sugars entirely on my own. I actually completed it, [have] since built two more, acquired two, and also got into other businesses."

Equal opportunities

Decades later, she has expanded the company into textiles mills, chemical industries, and a string of businesses ranging from education to energy. But it has not been easy.

While her parents never made her feel that they missed having a son, the society around them pitied them for not having a male heir.

Ms Pathy says she always had a burning fire in her belly to prove to her parents that she was as good as any son they would have had.

She says her father believed in equal opportunities.

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Image caption Ms Pathy became the first woman president of India's sugar mills association

"He always encouraged my sister and me to be whatever we wanted to be… as opposed to other business families who would find the right son-in-law to take over the dynasty."

Now there is more public dialogue about the role of women in society, though most of it has been around making public places safer for women, and less about increasing women's participation at the workforce.

At a national level, India has introduced a law making it compulsory for companies to have a woman on the board.

Yet when it comes to actually running companies, family-owned or otherwise, women account for fewer than 1% of chief executives, according to a 2012 report from consultancy McKinsey.

Slow change

Ms Pathy says things have changed - but only outside business families.

"Within business families, most women in business today are there by default because there are no sons," she says.

"In a country as large as India there are very few women running hard-core industries. I can count them on five fingers - which is a real pity."

Service sectors like banking and information technology may be different, but when it comes to manufacturing or engineering, there are very few women at the top slots, she adds.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption India has introduced a law making it compulsory for companies to have a woman on the board

Ms Pathy also became the first woman president of the country's sugar lobby and the regional industrial body.

Given that she runs a group of industries, and her husband's family run another set of industries - does she think it will it be any different for her daughter?

"My son and daughter will have an equal opportunity to run the business I have built. But it's their choice to make."

Outside of her company, she regrets that society hasn't changed much.

"In my own family business... I'm not allowed to sit on the board of trustees. Because I'm a daughter - I'm not allowed to participate.

"So, yes, it is still a feudal society."

Yet despite the problems women still face, she says a company's balance sheet remains gender neutral.

"You need to prove your worth on the balance sheet, it needs to be profitable. You are either successful or not successful, that's all business understands at the end of the day."

Asia Business Report in broadcast on BBC World News at 2330, 0130 and 0230 GMT on Monday and 2230, 2330, 0030, 0130 and 0230 GMT Tuesday-Friday.

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