MUMBAI (Reuters) - When Manisha Girotra started her career in investment banking in India 17 or so years ago, the businessmen she met wouldn't shake her hand.
Traditionally, etiquette meant Indian men would greet a woman with words rather than offering their hand.
"They would all say 'Namaste' to me and look like 'What are we supposed to do with this one who has walked in?'," she laughs.
Now managing director and chairperson for Swiss bank UBS in India, Girotra is by no means alone at the top of India's banking tree.
Private sector ICICI Bank has a woman joint managing director and chief financial officer, Chanda Kochhar, HSBC's country head is Naina Lal Kidwai, and Vedika Bhandarkar runs investment banking for JP Morgan.
Morgan Stanley also recently appointed a new - female - India investment banking head.
HSBC's Kidwai says about 40 percent of her upper-middle management are women.
"This isn't about numbers, it's about real quality high-ranking individuals driving business," she told Reuters India Investment Summit this week.
"The role model effect of that is fantastic because it will willy-nilly pull people along the line."
Kidwai, Girotra and Kochhar say they don't juggle office, children and home on their own.
Each credits India's enduring family support system, where mothers and sisters step in as back-up, and its pool of affordable domestic help as a key ingredient in oiling the wheels of their professional life and giving them one aide their counterparts in developed countries often have to do without.
"When I compare it with my friends from business school ... and the madness of running your kids, home, work, trying to make it to the day-care centre before it shuts to get your kid out - I think I would have died 3,000 times," Kidwai said.
"Some of them have managed, many of them have dropped away by the time the second child came. I think we in India have less excuses."
India can be a country of contradictions. Its adult female literacy rate was 47.8 percent in 2004 compared with adult male literacy of 73.4 percent, and a traditional cultural preference for sons has fed into female infanticide.
But it was also the second democracy to have an elected woman leader - Indira Gandhi, who first held office as prime minister from 1966 to 1977 - and its ruling Congress party is headed by a woman, also a Gandhi - Sonia, widow of Indira's assassinated son Rajiv.
Kochhar at ICICI, India's largest private-sector bank, says women, including senior executives, are more accepted than ever before and organisations don't think twice about promoting a woman if they think she deserves it.
"If I look at across India and what it was 20 to 23 years ago ... and what it is today, the number of organisations that are becoming gender neutral has increased substantially.
"If you just look at the student profile and look at our demographics and see how girls are performing in their academics, they are performing very well," Kochhar told the Reuters summit.
And for all those who join the work force now and enjoy financial independence, be it in banking or business process outsourcing, today's top women executives expect fewer will drop away when it comes to starting a family.
Apart from opportunity, bankers say altering attitudes have led to the change. Men are more accepting of their wives having jobs and women themselves want to keep working after childbirth.
"In terms of mindset, socially a lot of it is changing. Are women themselves saying they need to work, they should work, they enjoy working? Yes," Kochhar said.
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