Story highlights

Meet the first woman to head India State Bank in 208 years

Bringing in groundbreaking rules on two-year sabbaticals

Women workers say they no longer feel guilty about time off

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(CNN) —  

Gaze across the painted portraits adorning the walls of India’s biggest bank, and you’ll find row after row of men – with one exception.

Arundhati Bhattacharya is the first woman to head the State Bank of India in its 208-year-history, and she’s shaking up the rules on maternity leave like never before.

In Bhattacharya’s workplace, employees are allowed to take sabbaticals for two years – a huge relief for many women who fear they’ll be penalized for taking time out to care for family.

“In India, women are still the primary caregivers. Whether it be for children, whether it be for old people or sick people, you are the primary caregiver. No matter what position you are in,” said 58-year-old Bhattacharya, who in 2013 also became the youngest person to be appointed chairman of the company.

“We have allowed a special sabbatical of two years, which people can take three times in their career, usually for reasons of child-rearing or looking after sick people.”

It’s a bold move for most western workplaces – let alone in India, a country known for its patriarchal nature.

But the 36th most powerful woman in the world according to Forbes, isn’t a person held back by tradition.

Here, Bhattacharya opens up about running a company that controls a whopping fifth of India’s bank assets.

On rising to challenges:

“If you are really challenged, and if you are willing to take the plunge, very often some of the path opens up in front of you.”

On India’s patriarchal society:

“I still see a lot of recruitment of women. But I think we need to do more in order to get them to stay. There are still too few people staying put for them to have a good shot at the top jobs.”

On two-year sabbaticals:

“A large number of women who have taken time off have actually come and thanked me because they said: ‘You know, this feeling of guilt is terrible,’ So if they’re able to take off then they stop feeling guilty.”

On the mentor who encouraged her to stay:

“His name is Mr. M.S Verma and he really told me that: ‘You’ve worked long and hard, you are just about beginning to reap the awards, and you will not give up and you will try your best.’

“Only when you find for sure that nothing is working, then you should start having these thoughts. Not now.”

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