Arundhati Bhattacharya, the first woman chairman of the State Bank of India, talks about the outlook of India on the Fortune Most Powerful Women summit on February 28, 2017. Photo: Fortune

Finding one’s place in the cut-throat world of finance is tough for anyone in a patriarchal society such as India and it is even harder for women, but there have been some inroads.

In no small way the first woman chairman of the 210-year-old State Bank of India successfully found her place, navigating the male-dominated industry with a strong sense of self-confidence.

Arundhati Bhattacharya, who has held several positions in her 36-year career at the helm of the largest bank in the country, gave the keynote speech at the Fortune Most Powerful Women International summit in Hong Kong last week.

At the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Yau Ma Tei, the 60-year-old chair said young women should follow their own paths and rise to the challenges placed in front of them.

“Be used to dare. Women should not hold themselves back. The fact of the matter is that if you really love what you are doing and you want to do it, then you must go ahead and do it,” said Bhattacharya, who was among 164 women leaders in business and beyond at the forum.

“And don’t worry about challenges. Very often we make the challenges bigger than we are and I very often say it’s like driving on a highway on a dark night you can’t see beyond the headlights, but it appears there is a precipice there. Actually, its not a precipice. As you go ahead, the road opens up for you and I think that is precisely what is happening here.”

She shared how people often can make incorrect assumptions. “In fact, when people read out my biodata, they hesitate to say that I’m a major in literature because they feel that it is odd a major in literature can run such a big bank and it is OK that if you majored in economy or  commerce or some such. In fact, they feel more embarrassed than I do when reading my credentials.”

Even though her finance career began on a different path, Bhattacharya has proven that she is more than capable of running the State Bank of India with US$460 billion in assets.

When she was about to go to university, the principal of Lady Brabourne College suggested that she should study English literature and pursue a career in journalism because of her outstanding language skills. She then developed an interest in business during her English literature studies. By 1977, the year of her graduation, she had passed a test and joined the bank as a probationary officer.

Bhattacharya ranks second on Fortune’s 50 Most Powerful Women International list released last year, along with her compatriots Chanda Kochhar, the ICIC Bank chief who ranks fifth, and Shikha Sharma, the CEO of Axis Bank at number 19.

In no other country in the world, do women dominate the financial sectors as much as in India. “Over 50% of banking business in India today is controlled by women,” Mayur Shetty, a journalist of the Times of India who covers the industry said on Quora in an answer to a question on Who are the Indian Women in Banking?

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